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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Obama’s Chinese lesson

Obama’s Chinese lesson

US President Barack Obama’s visit to China was most notable for his hosts’ refusal to play his game. Nothing could have been more symbolically ludicrous and deflating for Obama and the dignity of the office of US president than speaking before a bunch of hand-picked university students taking part in a “town hall” address in Shanghai. Never mind that the students were mostly or all members of the Chinese Communist Party, that they asked vetted, even infantile, questions or that the students who sat behind Obama — and were thus visible to TV and online audiences — behaved as if they couldn’t understand a word.

Not that it mattered. Even this sanitized and tortuously negotiated speech was blocked from most Chinese viewers who might have been interested in what Obama had to say.

Toward the end of his trip Obama gave an exclusive interview to the publication Southern Weekend, but even this benign interview seems to have been interfered with, arriving on newsstands and in mailboxes without the wraparound cover that contained the text of the interview.

Welcome to China, Mr President. Thanks for the chat. Now get out.

There is a worrying number of US officials, advisers and think tank members who are willing to take this kind of behavior from the Chinese government. Some of these are, or will be, conducting business with China in a private capacity, so acts of disrespect against their leader can be rationalized in proportion to the opportunities that China offers them for their cooperation. Others seem to think that accommodating Beijing’s boorishness is best diplomatic practice, whatever the cost for Americans or ordinary Chinese.

What this trip has done is give Obama something very personal that might challenge the stance of those under him that the Chinese government should, in effect, be afforded diplomatic unaccountability. With direct experience of the ill will and hubris of Chinese politicians and media appointees, together with predictably limited progress on regional, environmental and human rights issues, Obama will not take home anything like the awe for Chinese might and history that Mao Zedong (毛澤東) inculcated in former US president Richard Nixon when they met in Beijing.

The part of the US establishment that allows North Korean autocrats to be named as such and Chinese autocrats to be feted and empowered, therefore, may find that Beijing’s refusal to find common ground with the West on basic levels of diplomatic courtesy will impress itself on the US president. Taiwan can only gain from this, though the effects are likely to be subtle and gradual, and certainly not enough to justify a reduction in vigilance.

It has been said before, but it needs to be said again and again: Beijing’s communist government regards open displays of goodwill from the West patronizingly at best, but more often with suspicion and open contempt. In Obama’s case, however, Beijing has adopted an astonishingly cavalier approach at a symbolic level with the one world leader whose friendship it could have employed for the betterment of all.

Even by the complex and inscrutable standards of much statecraft, Beijing has presented Obama and the American people with a regrettable message: Give us face when making deals — but leave your principles at home.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2009/11/21

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