China’s Obama enthusiasm can’t conceal impending upheaval

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November 20, 2009

2:22 AM

In the last week, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to several Asian countries to meet with world leaders. The few days he spent in China were the highlight of the trip. The country still holds a certain mystery for Americans that perhaps no other nation could.

When President Richard Nixon first visited the country, reporters likened it to a trip to the moon. Some of the mystery has been lost since China has opened up to the West during the past few decades, but the nation still captures our imagination more than any of its neighbors because of its unfamiliar customs, extensive history and predicted rise to the rank of world superpower.

Yet, Obama’s visit to China seemed almost mundane. He met the leaders, issued vague joint statements, and gently nudged them on issues of contention, with the whole show tightly managed by the Chinese authorities. The U.S. media has portrayed the visit as little more than Obama’s orientation to the country, with real policy issues to be decided later, which is a fair assessment.

However, the short trip may have been more important than we think, and it seems the Chinese certainly think so. The Chinese have viewed Obama as something of a celebrity — even when he was still just a presidential candidate. The public reaction to his arrival in Shanghai shows he is not viewed as just another president.

“U.S. President Barack Obama is revered by young people here as much for his superstar appeal as the leader of the world’s sole superpower. Souvenirs bearing the president’s image, T-shirts, notebooks, badges, mobile phone jackets and transport card stickers are selling by the thousands at roadside shops and online stores. Internet chat rooms are buzzing with tips on where to get a glimpse of Obama,” Chinese journalist Hong Liang wrote.

The Chinese media was also caught up in the spectacle, reporting on all aspects of his visit. Columnist Li Xing went so far as to say that the visit represents the culmination of Sino-U.S. relations begun decades ago. “When Nixon left China, he said both were committed to ‘build a bridge’ over the Pacific and years of hostility. When Obama leaves today, he and President Hu Jintao will have committed to collaborations over almost all issues that challenge the well-being of the world,” Xing said.

These reactions bode well for the future of Sino-U.S. relations. The tributes to Obama’s superstardom are visible signals of his popularity, but are not enough to ensure our relationship with China will be without conflict.

The economic crisis has shaken China’s respect for the U.S. economy and, more broadly, our entire economic and political system. A recent piece in China Daily portrays Obama’s visit in this light, “Obama’s visit to China may not be seen as the triumphant arrival of a savant professor and mentor, and still fewer will be the lessons that he could possibly give to the business community. Rather, the Chinese are more than ever wondering whether they should still look to the United States as a role model for economic development.”

It is clear that China has endowed Obama’s first foray into the country with much more significance than we do. As citizens of the United States, we do not appreciate, and probably could not understand, how the Chinese consider this event. It embodies a conflict of ideas, which may come to define the Sino-U.S. relationship.

On the one hand, the United States is seen as the example of the industriousness, wealth and success China hopes to achieve, as well as a powerful partner in world affairs. On the other hand, the United States is a status quo power that is trying to remake China in its own image — an image that the recent economic crisis has led China to view with some skepticism. The pageantry of Obama’s visit and his personal popularity brought these issues forcefully to center stage.

While it is too soon to accurately describe the full significance of this week’s events, to the Chinese they may be more meaningful than the United States suspects.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected] Cartoon by Olivia Walch.

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