How Should Western Leaders Approach China?

Joseph Biden's criticisms of Beijing contrasted sharply with David Cameron's conciliatory tone. Who had the right idea?
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British Prime Minister David Cameron plays ping pong with primary school students during his trip to Chengdu, Sichuan province. (Reuters)

U.S. vice president Joe Biden spent less than 48 hours in China this week, but managed to criticize its new air defense zone, China’s treatment of foreign journalists, and general lack of democracy. In contrast, David Cameron, who was in China for three days this week, played ping pong with school children, opened a Sina Weibo account, and publicly avoided controversial topics. When he returned home he even said British schools should start teaching Mandarin.

The two visits couldn’t have been more different. Still, both approaches reaped scorn from media mouthpieces of the Chinese government as well as the general public, raising the question: What is the right diplomatic way to appeal to China? It appears no one really knows.

At the beginning of Biden’s China trip, the vice president was referred to as an “old friend” in China. But he made little effort to keep that name, expressing Washington’s “firm position and expectations” on China’s air defense zone, which covers territories that both the Chinese and Japanese claim.

China’s foreign ministry said that Xi Jinping responded by saying the zone follows international law and that America should take an “objective and fair attitude.”An editorial in the state-run Global Times further belittled Biden’s address in which he urged students to “challenge” government: “The episode of Biden propagating ‘democracy and freedom’ is just a ‘routine performance’ of any visiting American officials.”

Parts of the Chinese public, once taken with the vice president’s so-called “noodle diplomacy” of earlier visits, were not pleased either and took to Chinese social media to criticize Biden. One Sina Weibo user commented, “This old guy propagates the so-called universal value, and encourages the people to turn against their government … the police should arrest him.” Another said, “He harbors evil intent in his heart.”

Cameron, who arrived with over 100 business people in hopes of drumming up trade and investment, aimed for charming China. He strolled along Shanghai’s riverside, chatting with Lisa Pan, vice president of one of Asia’s largest mobile gaming companies, Rekoo. While meeting Chinese officials he pushed for an EU-China free trade deal that few in the EU want—as well as Chinese investment in a British high-speed rail project that many in the U.K. don’t want.

Once again, The Global Times ran a scathing editorial, saying the Cameron administration should acknowledge “that the U.K. is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese … It is just an old European country apt for travel and study.” On his newly opened Sina Weibo account, Cameron offered to answer questions from the Chinese public. He received questions that ranged from mocking—”Do you feel ashamed that London’s title of the foggy capital was stolen by Beijing?” to the offensive—“How many homosexuals are there in the U.K.?”

Cameron has promised to answer the questions in a video in a few days, but odds are the answers aren’t going to make anyone in China happy either.

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Heather Timmons and Lily Kuo

Heather TImmons and Lily Kuo are Asia-focused reporters for Quartz.

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