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After Barack Obama’s inauguration, we ran a series at China Beat of various China experts’ reading recommendations for Obama on China (See installments I, II, III, IV, V, VI). At the time, we assumed a trip to China would be one of Obama’s top priorities–as is now clear with last week’s announcement that Obama will visit China in November 2009. So we sent out a few emails to China watchers from a variety of backgrounds, asking if they had advice for Obama as he prepares for the summit in Beijing. Here, the first installment from Robert A. Kapp, former president of the U.S.-China Business Council.

By Robert A. Kapp

Dear Mr. President,

As a (perhaps the least prominent) member of your Asia Foreign Policy Group during the campaign, I am thrilled that you are soon headed for China. If your trip is, for you, anything like my trip was for me (albeit more than 32 years ago), you will be fascinated, impressed, and perhaps sobered at how much there is to see and know and how little time you have to accomplish all that you might want to.

Here are a few random tips on how to make your visit most successful; from what I have seen of you as president, most of the things I offer have long since come naturally to you anyway, and your personal grace and dignity, as well as your intellect and grasp of issues, will prove the guarantors of your successful visit. Still, here are a few thoughts.

1.   Make a point of listening attentively. The pace of high-level meetings can be slow; don’t try to force it by pushing ahead before your counterpart has finished.  If you do not fully understand, in translation, something your host has said to you, ask for clarification. Allow time for silence between deliveries. Sometimes the Chinese waits for a while to be sure that the American visitor has finished his remarks; unable to tolerate the silent interval, the American starts talking again. Let things settle in any back-and-forth.

2.   Avoid verbal pyrotechnics and culture-bound American colloquialisms. You are blessedly well spoken anyway, but popular culture terms, US sports jargon, and humor based either on purely American experiences or on English language word play don’t work. We veterans of the early days will remember Doonesbury’s figure Honey (still very much alive and active in real life in Beijing, by the way) telling her Chinese official boss, “The American is making a joke; laugh now.”

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By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

As regular readers of this blog already know, I recently crossed the Pacific to take part in the Beijing Forum, a fascinating if sometimes hard to figure out event that was valuable in part simply because of how many different countries were represented by at least one presenter. How often, after all, does an American academic find himself or herself in a room where there is an exchange of opinions going on between a scholar based in Moscow and a scholar based in Cairo, or hears an administrator from a university in Nairobi respond to comments his counterparts from Sri Lankan and Australian institutions have been making? (I know that dog and cat lovers may be getting impatient with this lead-up, but I promise I will get to animals and politics eventually, so feel free to skip to the final paragraphs.)

After the Forum concluded on November 9, as followers of China Beat also know, I had the opportunity to give a talk at the Beijing Foreign Correspondents Club of China. This was memorable for various reasons. One was that just before, during and after the formal event, I got to take thoughtful questions from and exchange ideas with a mixture of both people whose bylines I often come across, such as Mark Magnier (who writes for the Los Angeles Times, the paper I read with my morning coffee) and Melinda Liu of Newsweek (who graciously hosted the event), and journalists I hadn’t known of before (but will now look out for on the web). Another thing that made it memorable was that the talk’s setting afforded a great bird’s eye view of part of the city, which according to local residents is still enjoying post-Olympic reduced smog levels. And, finally, the talk led to me being quoted, for the first time ever I think (and quoted very appropriately at that), in an Indian newspaper.

Over the next week or two, I’ll blog about other parts of that quick trip, which began right after the American Presidential election (the result of which was seen as a very good one by every Chinese person I encountered who voiced an opinion) and ended with a few days spent in the big city on the Huangpu River that’s the subject of my latest book, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010, a work due out in Britain in two weeks (with slightly later release dates in other parts of the world). I’m not sure yet what the focus of my future trip-related posts will be. I’ll likely have things to say about how Shanghai is gearing up for the 2010 Expo, the event that provides the endpoint for my book. I’ll also have something to say about two publications by China Beat contributors I read and enjoyed while traveling: Lijia Zhang’s engagingly written and often moving Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, and Xujun Eberlein’s compelling short story collection, Apologies Forthcoming.

In addition, though this site hasn’t gone in for restaurant reviews in the past (and probably won’t often run them in the future), I’ll have something to say about two eateries that were mentioned recently on China Beat in the interview with NPR’s Louisa Lim, “Fish Nation” (pictured in the accompanying photograph) and “Southern Barbarian,” since I had enjoyable meals in very interesting company in each of them. I’ll also likely refer to other restaurants I ate in or simply noticed that provide windows into how China is changing and the complex ways that globalization can work.

For now, though, just some ending comments about the feline turn that political commentary about the American election took while I was in China, just as U.S. discussions of Obama made a lot about the puppy problem his family is facing. Let me begin with the canine conundrum—or what in Mao’s day might have been dubbed the canine contradiction. On the night before my Beijing FCCC talk, I caught a CNN report on President-Elect Obama’s first press conference, which included his now much-dissected humorous reference to being torn between getting a specially bred hypoallergenic dog (due to one of his children being allergic) and getting a shelter dog (even though these tend to be “mutts,” a term he said could also apply to himself).

Nothing related to dogs came up the next day (if the Chinese press latched onto the mutt maodun, they didn’t do so in the papers I saw). But cats did—via the first joke in Chinese I have ever been sent via text messaging. On my second day in Beijing, I had bought my first Chinese mobile phone—it didn’t take long to discover how essential it is to have one of these, in part simply to be able to inform people you are planning to meet how late you will be due to traffic delays. Until November 10, though, the only text messages I had gotten had either been spam advertisements or queries about whether traffic delays were going to make me late for a lunch engagement (for once, they didn’t). Then, as I sat with a colleague, he began chuckling at a message he’d received and when I asked him what he was laughing at, he said “why don’t I just zap it to you.” So, through the wonders of modern technology, the joke, which had likely made its way around much of the PRC by that point (since I later learned it was a more refined version of one that China Daily had written about a few days before), moved through the ether from his phone inches away to mine.

It was a perhaps predictable play on Deng Xiaoping’s famous line, which has been riffed and mocked and modified in so many ways before, that it is foolish to be too ideologically dogmatic, for when it comes to catching mice, it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, just whether it gets the job done. The Chinese characters that showed up on my phone said, in essence: “It used to be that in the electoral process, the American people would only choose white presidents, never black ones. But then after the American people studied Deng Xiaoping Theory, they realized that it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, a cat that can solve a crisis is a good cat.”

By the way, the photo of the dog at the top of this posting obviously has nothing to do with the presidential election. It was just a shot I found interesting, since it was taken on a street that in general looks much like those I remember from my first trip to Shanghai back in the mid-1980s (in the way that, say, the face-lifted and spruced up Nanjing Road doesn’t at all), yet via the pet in the sweater flags one of the many ways that the city has changed since then.

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Chinese reactions to Obama’s election range broadly, as exemplified in this morning’s news coverage. Dominant themes include racial equality, financial security, a changing international profile for the U.S., and trade implications. [Please let us know if you find outstanding coverage elsewhere that you feel should be flagged–either by submitting a comment or by sending an email to thechinabeat@gmail.com.]

From Jim Yardley’s piece (it is the last piece before the comments section begins) on Chinese reaction to Obama’s election, at The New York Times:

…Mr. Tang, 23, admitted that the American election had been a serious distraction during his Wednesday morning classes. Given the different time zones, the outcome was still uncertain. Yet now that he could assess the historic Obama victory, Mr. Tang’s reaction seemed akin to a sports fan dissecting a box score and betrayed none of the hopeful idealism once conferred on Western-styled democracy by young Chinese intellectuals.

“We are different from the younger generation 20 years ago,” Mr. Tang said, alluding to the generation defined, and scarred, by the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. “Now we can take a more rational, sober approach when we observe the election. The generation 20 years ago grew up in a different environment. America was like a completely different world. It would be shocking to watch this.”

Mr. Tang’s cool detachment is just a small reminder that if the idealism of young voters in the United States was considered critical to Mr. Obama’s victory, their peers in authoritarian China are often less convinced of the transformative potential of democracy. The bookcases outside Mr. Tang’s classrooms are filled with journals assessing the Sino-American relationship and several students said Mr. Obama’s candidacy had become a subject of much interest and discussion…

And from Evan Osnos at The New Yorker, “Breakfast in Beijing“:

…“Obama gives greater confidence to people of the Third World,” Yang said after the photo. “We, the black, yellow and other races, can be the same as the whites! We struggled for independence and, finally, won that. Now we have won in another field—political affairs—and in a superpower no less.”

In China, Obama’s success has attracted particular curiosity because his emergence is such a thoroughly un-Chinese phenomenon. Political prodigies are rare in a nation that grooms top leaders through decades of CommunistParty road-testing and pageantry. And because Chairman Mao’s cult of personality led the country into extremism, the Party spent the next three decades engineering its politicians to be as indistinguishable as possible…

From the BBC’s interviews with Chinese people:

“American elections have shaken me to the core. I have always thought the Chinese political system is the best in the world, but it is not so. We are deprived of our sacred rights, rule of law and human rights are trampled upon. To have a democratic system like the one in the USA is more difficult than touching the sky… But we long to achieve freedom and democracy, which is a difficult task for us young people in China.” (Anonymous)

From Nathan Gardels at Huffington Post, a collection of international views on Obama, including a piece on “If America Accepts Obama, Then It Can Accept the Rise of China” by Wang Jisi (dean of Beida’s School of International Studies):

…Among Chinese intellectuals and elites ,who are supposedly more knowledgeable about international affairs, including some senior specialists on America, stereotypes persisted.

Some of them have believed that “America could not accept a black president.” Many in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have predicted that something dramatic, similar to John F. Kennedy’s assassination or Chen Shui-bian’s mysterious “bullet event,” would happen to disrupt the process. To them, America, after all, is a nation full of conspiracies, from the alleged “discovery” of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear devices to the machinations that precipitated the current financial storm.

These suspicions reflect a common image of the United States in China: a white-dominated, highly competitive society that believes only in power politics and the “rule of the jungle.” Just as America would not elect a candidate from an ethnic minority, this thinking goes, neither would it ever accept the rise of a non-Western nation — China. Instead, America would do its utmost to contain and weaken China unless it changes into a country like Japan.

Now that the election campaign is behind us, it’s time for both Chinese and Americans to view each other anew. Chinese should see the United States as a nation not necessarily discriminating against people or nations that are racially, culturally or politically different…

And for those of you interested in China-related election minutiae, Don King issued his endorsement of Obama yesterday from Chengdu.

For other coverage:
Obama’s Race, Youth Welcomed in Worried China” (Reuters)

We Wish US-President Elect Obama Well” (China Daily)

How Will Obama Prove for China?” (Times of India)

China Reacts Cautiously to Barack Obama’s Win” (Telegraph, with audio from Richard Spencer)

Barack Obama: The View from China” (Guardian)

China, Emerging Asia to Fight ‘Protectionist’ Obama” (Bloomberg)

American Election and Chinese Rice Bowl” (Inside-Out China)

Obama Victory Provokes Trade Worries in Asia” (Forbes)

Obama to Retain Taiwan Policy” (Taipei Times)

Obama’s Election Will Change Taiwan-U.S. Relations: DPP Lawmakers” (Taiwan News)

Now it’s ‘Cool America‘” (Asia Times)

No Strong Reaction from China’s Leaders” (Washington Wire, Wall Street Journal) (See also: “The Election in the Chinese Media” by Sky Canaves)

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