Last words on Obama and China

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Yes, there are more!

1) We All Know that Obama was humiliated and stonewalled by the haughty Chinese leaders, in contrast to the titanic American presidents of yore who spoke sternly to Mao and his successors and therefore always got just what they wanted in Beijing. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has reminded us of his fecklessness again.

And yet...  my favorite newspaper of all, the (state-controlled) China Daily, has just indicated in its November 25 edition that China's recent year-long freeze on the value of the RMB may be about to end. (Thanks to my friend Jeremy Goldkorn, of Danwei.org in Beijing, for the tip.) If Obama had "demanded" this in public, or insisted that it be announced while he was standing next to Hu Jintao in Beijing, his "toughness" might have received better one-day coverage in the U.S. press or on SNL.  But the chances of his getting what he was after would be nil. Of course, the chances are still uncertain. But this was the major item on the economic-rebalancing agenda; and the Administration's argument all along was that influencing China's behavior was a long game. This news story is not conclusive but does support rather than weaken the long-game approach.

2) We All Know that the Shanghai town hall was an embarrassment, because the audience was packed with young Communist Party stalwarts who could be depended on to ask anodyne questions. ("What's the best step toward a Nobel Prize?" etc.)

But remember the moment when Obama turned to Ambassador Jon Huntsman and said more or less, "Jon, did any questions come in via the internet?" I now have heard from enough different informed sources to be comfortable saying that the Chinese government did not know this was coming, and that the ensuing discussion about the Great Firewall was not at all according to their script. Jeremy Goldkorn adds a note about that question -- whose answer, as I mentioned earlier, has the potential to resonate within China. Goldkorn says:

"The Great FireWall question at the Shanghai town hall came directly from the blogger briefing arranged by the Embassy and consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

"I attended the briefing and live tweeted it. The bloggers included Anti and Bei Feng, two of the loudest voices calling for open media in China at the moment, but also Rao Jin from AntiCNN.com. The most common question, asked several times by different bloggers, was if Obama knew about the Great FireWall and if he would do something about it."

3) Most Americans don't know about the Southern Weekend interview -- the one interview Obama gave to a Chinese publication, and not to the People's Daily or CCTV but to a Guangzhou-based paper that is famed in China for its muckraking exposes of corruption and abuse. It would be as if a visiting head of state passed up CBS and the NYT and spoke instead only to Frontline or Mother Jones. The Obama team was well aware of what their meeting with Southern Weekend would symbolize -- not necessarily to the traveling press but to the educated population of China. As the government official I have previously quoted explained to me, "We wanted to highlight an edgy, aggressive Chinese paper that has run stories that others don't run. That was meant to be a statement encouraging serious journalistic effort in China."

As Jason Dean explained in the Wall Street Journal and Jeremy Goldkorn did in Danwei, the authorities then interfered with the distribution of Southern Weekend in a comically ham-handed way. For instance, they (apparently) tore out pages containing Obama's interview from copies headed for foreign news bureaus -- but let them in for ordinary Chinese readers. The government official said, after marveling at the crudeness of the censorship, "I read a piece somewhere saying how naïve we were thinking we could get it out that way. But we did get a message out to a fair number of people. Did we expect it to be uncensored? No. But again think what the episode shows about the American government, and the Chinese."
 
As Thanksgiving draws near in America, readers can give thanks that I will bid adieu to this topic. To sum it up: the Administration may or may not end up getting what it hoped for from this trip to Asia, especially China. But its members had a clearer idea of what they were after, how they could get it, and how to represent American interests and values than most coverage gave them credit for. The words that stick with me through this whole episode are those in the subtitle of Tish Durkin's piece last week: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

And I'm not even getting into the whole "Obama carries his own umbrella" brouhaha! Read about it here, if you want.  Happy upcoming Thanksgiving Day.
 
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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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