Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mea Culpa re Obama in China

In my prior post about Obama's speech and q-and-a with students in Shanghai, my usual intoxication with the intricate structure of Obama's speechmaking blinded me to the broader context in which he allowed the speech to take place -- with no broadcast to the Chinese people as a whole. To a degree Obama seems to have hit the mute button on human rights in China, failing either to raise the issues or gain the exposure that Bush and Clinton did before him. The FT's Edward Luce and Geoff Dyer portray a two-track muting:

In contrast to the last two US presidential visits to China - George W. Bush in 2002 and Bill Clinton in 1998, both of whose words were broadcast live and widely to the Chinese public - Mr Obama's 60-minute question-and-answer session in Shanghai was heavily restricted.

Only the citizens of Shanghai were able to watch it live on local broadcasts. Elsewhere, Chinese citizens were theoretically able to view the event on the White House website , although many reported huge difficulties in accessing either images or sound via the site.

The irony was hard to miss. In spite of weeks of pressure from US officials to open the event to the public the Chinese held their ground. Yet in contrast to his two most recent predecessors, who criticised China for detaining dissidents and suppressing freedom of religion in Tibet, Mr Obama studiously avoided giving his hosts any explicit cause for offence.

Furthermore, Mr Obama's dextrous attempts to avoid provoking the Chinese were heavily censored. Phoenix television, a Hong Kong-based channel with broadcasts on the mainland, carried the first few minutes of Mr Obama's speech at the start of the meeting but cut to another item before he made a relatively generic pitch for universal values.

In concert with the (apparently Hillary-driven) flip-flop on stopping Israeli settlement growth, Obama is starting to look like he can be pushed around. I do not believe that that will prove to be the case over time. But Gideon Rachman was right. On the international as well as the national stage, Obama needs to land a punch -- as I expect he will on his own sweet time, with the ground thoroughly laid. Though after the wild flailing of the Bush years, he seems to regard reassurance as the better part of strength. And again, per my prior post, there is a shining, supreme confidence, packing a wallop of its own, in a message such as "we do not seek to contain China's rise."

UPDATE 11/22: James Fallows has choreographed multiple voices to push back powerfully against the dominant media narrative that portrayed Obama's China trip as a failure. The centerpiece, a summary of the state of negotiations on mulitple interviews provided anonymously by a U.S. participant, makes it clear that U.S.-China negotiations are always "water on a stone," that it's too early to judge the effects of this first round, but that the engagement was substantive and constructive. Other informed reports relayed by Fallows indicate that Obama did reach a broad Chinese audience and may have stirred them deeply (as I assumed he would, reading the transcript) in the town hall. I do believe, and never really doubted, that this is true on substance. But as the last voice Fallows has cited in this series so far points out, the Obama team has done a poor job managing perceptions of the trip here in the U.S.

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