In Obama’s China Trip, a Stark Contrast with the Past (Updated)

Now that President Obama has moved on to South Korea, the reviews of his time in China are in. From the Washington Post:

U.S. presidents have been trekking to China — and also lauding the Great Wall — since Richard Nixon visited in 1972. But, in both form and content, Obama’s trip stood in stark contrast to the journeys of his predecessors.

The changes reflect not so much a policy shift by a new administration in Washington as a dramatic and much bigger change in the power dynamic, particularly in economics, over the past decade — a change that has been the central undercurrent of Obama’s swing through China this week.

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton stood before television cameras in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the United States owed more money to Spain than to China and did more than twice as much trade with Mexico. At a freewheeling news conference, Clinton criticized China’s military crackdown a decade earlier in Tiananmen Square and traded spirited jibes with President Jiang Zemin.

On Tuesday, Obama stood in the same building alongside another Chinese leader. This time, with the United States in hock to China for more than $1 trillion dollars and flooded with Chinese-made goods, it was a Chinese-style news conference. Each leader read a prepared statement and eyed the other in silence. There were no questions.

Also from AP:

“The Sino-U.S. Joint Statement is as worthy as gold,” trumpeted the state-run 21st Century Business Herald while the Beijing Post said it set “a good example for many other bilateral relations.”

Among regular folk, there was no such sizzle.

Maybe it was the rain in Shanghai or the below freezing temperatures in Beijing, but crowds did not line the streets to catch a glimpse of the president’s motorcade — a marked difference from the well-wishers who have clamored to see Obama in Europe.

Obama does have a following in China, particularly among youth who see him as an exciting contrast to China’s staid leadership, but his visit seems to have had little effect on even those who like him — possibly because many of his comments were not widely disseminated.

The New York Times blog has hosted a debate over Obama’s human rights approach in China, featuring Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, professor of history, Tom Malinowski, Human Rights Watch, and Jerome A. Cohen, N.Y.U. Law School’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.

Watch Obama’s visit to the Great Wall via AP:

Update: Obama sat down for an interview with Southern Weekend (南方周末), which can be read (in Chinese) here.
nfzm (President Obama being interviewed by Southern Weekend reporters)

Also, for another perspective on the Asia trip, read “Obama’s Pacific Trip Encounters Rough Waters” from the New York Times.

On the Huffington Post, Elizabeth Lynch gives a more upbeat assessment of Obama’s town hall meeting and trip to China in general:

It appears that the Obama Administration’s human rights agenda for China will focus around internet censorship. The Chinese government has spent a tremendous amount of time and resources in controlling the internet, and has largely been successful at stamping out content it deems objectionable, so it likely did not take too kindly to President Obama’s answer. But will this be enough to help China live up to many of its ideals? Can the internet solely replace the need for a functioning civil society, another area that the Chinese government is clamping down on? Or will it just be a place to shop like it is in many other countries? This remains to be seen.

And from Evan Osnos:

Obama’s China team is hoping that the early verdicts have a short shelf life. Though it’s fair to point out that when President Clinton came to China in 1998 he enjoyed a nationally broadcast discussion with the president at the time, Jiang Zemin, about human rights and other sensitive topics, the contrast with today says more about China than it does about differences in American approaches. In 1998, China was still climbing out of post-Tiananmen isolation, and it was desperate to win U.S. support in trade negotiations. Moreover, Jiang Zemin was a leader with a Clintonian appetite for the camera. His successors have different tastes and incentives.

Obama’s China team is not deaf to the contrasts. But it sees the gap as a measure of its tactical decision to pursue more of its agenda in private than in public. After a half-day of private meetings between Obama, Hu, and aides, Jeff Bader, the senior director for Asian affairs at the national security council took pains to stake his name on the fact that human rights did not get shortchanged. “I’ve been involved in the China relationship for over thirty years,” he said, “and I’ve been on previous presidential visits, visits by secretaries of state to China. This was as direct a discussion on human rights as I’ve seen by any high-level visitor with the Chinese.”

Shanghaiist has a worthwhile roundup of media coverage of Obama’s trip.

November 18, 2009 3:11 PM
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