By ZHANG WEI
BARACK Obama’s first trip to China was like a splendid stage play. The performance was long rehearsed in both Washington and Beijing, because both governments needed at least the appearance of a successful visit.
China’s ruling Communist Party needed the US president’s unequivocal endorsement of China’s increasingly important international role in order to buttress its domestic legitimacy.
The US needed China’s cooperation to demonstrate the effectiveness of Obama’s new strategy of collaborative global leadership.
Now that the play is over and the applause has died down, it is time to check the balance sheet and see how much Obama achieved and how much he conceded.
On the positive side of the ledger, Obama received ceremonial treatment not normally accorded to visiting foreign leaders, even other visiting US presidents, demonstrating the importance China’s government attached to the visit.
China’s president Hu Jintao sent his likely successor, vice-president Xi Jinping, to greet Obama at Beijing airport, going well beyond the usual protocol. And Hu himself dined with Obama twice during his two-day stay in Beijing – a gesture never made to any visiting foreign leader, including Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama also initially appeared to make some progress in giving voice to the universal values of human rights and democracy. He met with students in Shanghai in his favourite “town-hall” format, which allowed for face-to-face discussions with young Chinese.
Moreover, China’s government allowed Nanfang Zhoumo, the country’s most liberal newspaper, to conduct a 12-minute exclusive interview with Obama.
But the Chinese public soon discounted the value of these political set pieces. People quickly discovered that the “students” allowed to ask questions at Obama’s town-hall meeting in Shanghai were young Communist Party activists.
Moreover, unlike with other US presidents, the event was not broadcast nationwide, and Nanfang Zhoumo’s full interview with Obama did not appear in the newspaper, despite the Communist Party propaganda departments’ advance approval of all the interview questions.
And the negative side of the ledger?
Obama gave up two things that have usually been at the top of the agenda when US presidents meet with Chinese leaders.
First, Obama did not openly criticise the Chinese government’s notorious human rights record, nor did he use his influence to persuade China to release any prisoner of conscience, as his US predecessors always did when visiting the country.
While Obama toasted Hu, Liu Xiaobo, a famous Chinese dissident, remained shut away in an unknown location, having vanished last December because of his leading role in drafting a written appeal for constitutional rights.
Soon after Obama left China, two other writers, Huang Qi and Tan Tiandun, were sentenced to prison. Their crime was to investigate cases of corruption by local government officials that were linked to the deaths of tens of thousands of students in the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008.
Second, Obama did not seriously seek to resolve existing US-China economic disagreements, particularly over trade. With China running a seemingly perpetual external surplus, foreign-currency reserves have continued to mount even during the global economic crisis, with net growth reaching US$140 billion in the third quarter of this year.
China’s main trade partners are deeply worried about the consequences of this continuing imbalance. They urge China’s government to reduce its export subsidies and to allow the yuan to appreciate, expecting such measures to reduce their trade deficits, help their economies recover, and create more jobs.
On this front, however, China’s leaders made no compromise with Obama.
So, on balance, Obama’s first trip to China achieved relatively little.
Moreover, what he did achieve looks superficial, while what he gave up seems substantial.
Of course, this is partly because of the changes in the relative economic and political power of the US and China over the past decade, and especially during the current global economic crisis.
However, the sizable deficit on the balance sheet of Obama’s China trip could have been much lower if Obama had paid more attention to substance.
It seems that Hu is more skilful than the polished Obama at maximising his gains at little cost. – Project Syndicate
* Zhang Wei is Lecturer in the Chinese Economy at Cambridge University.