Knowing What We Don't Know, China Dept.

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Late in 2009, when President Obama was making his first trip to China, I did a running set of (increasingly amazed and and occasionally peeved) notes on how the traveling U.S. press corps was covering the whole thing as if it were an election-year campaign swing. Just as they had a year earlier, when candidate Obama was trying to close the sale against John McCain, many stories judged his success or failure by crowd size and enthusiasm, Obama's pep on the podium, his body language in public appearances, and so on. On those standards, overall they judged it a gigantic flop.

I argued at the time that the things that mattered about the trip, for better or worse, were not likely to be displayed in the immediate public interactions between an American president and his Chinese counterparts. And looking back on the evolution of the administration's foreign policy, I contended earlier this year in my long story about Obama that U.S. positioning toward China was actually one of the more chessmaster-like features of Obama's overall policy. That is, love the current administration or hate it, you really should consider China-handling one of the more successful parts of its record. The China section of the article went on at considerable length, but these were the beginning and ending parts:

By the time Obama made his state visit to Shanghai and Beijing, in November 2009, the press in both countries and the rest of the world was primed to present his usual low-key demeanor as servility. The Washington Post and The New York Times contrasted Obama's supposed hat-in-hand manner with the bravado of Bill Clinton, who had mentioned the Tiananmen Square protests while standing next to President Jiang Zemin.

Yet even as Obama was politely listening to lectures about China's new superiority, members of his administration were executing an elaborate pincer movement to reestablish American influence, real and perceived, among the growing economies of Asia....

Two years after Obama's "humiliating" visit to Shanghai and Beijing, U.S. relations with China were a mix of cooperation and tension, as they had been through the post-Nixon years. But American relations with most other nations in the region were better than since before the Iraq War. In a visit to Australia late in 2011, Obama startled the Chinese leadership but won compliments elsewhere with the announcement of a new permanent U.S. Marine presence in Darwin, on Australia's northern coast.

The strategy was Sun Tzu-like in its patient pursuit of an objective: reestablishing American hard and soft power while presenting a smiling "We welcome your rise!" face to the Chinese. "It was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see," Walter Russell Mead, of Bard College, often a critic of the administration, wrote about the announcement of the Australian base. "In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be."

Why do I bring this up? Because we've recently had another similar example, in the influential initial coverage of American "handling" of the Chen Guangcheng case.

AtlanticChen.jpgObviously the road ahead for Chen and his family is rocky and uncertain. Their prospects look a lot better than when family members were being beaten and he was under house arrest, but a new set of challenges and complications is ahead. And as Orville Schell very astutely argues, today's Chinese government has shown a kind of soft-power sophistication (and cynicism) in realizing that it was better to get Chen out of the country relatively quickly and let the international spotlight move away from him, as it inevitably will.

Still, this episode has so far turned out better than it easily might have. And the State Department and White House negotiators on the U.S. side, whatever mistakes or misjudgments they may have made, appear to have been something other than the feckless clowns portrayed in the first wave of press coverage, based on the question of whether they had sold Chen Guangcheng out.

Before you mention it: yes, some accounts posted by the Atlantic were as quick to leap to this conclusion as anyone else. As mentioned at the time, I thought headlines like those at right gave the wrong impression. Maybe therefore we're in a more sincere position to use this as a reminder of how hard it is to judge negotiations immediately, and on the basis of external stage business, and especially when dealing with governments not known for transparency. We naturally crave "what does it all mean?" "who screwed up?" "who won and lost?" certainty, but there are times when the immediately available answers to those questions are likely to be wrong. In our little part of our journo-sphere we will try to do our part by taking this lesson to heart.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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