How the Hu-Obama Summit Looked in China

Hu Jintao came, saw, conquered his sniffles, gave $45 billion, tapped his foot to Herbie Hancock, showed that China is still open for business, and got rock star treatment in Chicago. As with almost all state summits, the balance between symbolism and substance tipped in favor of the former. That is not a bad thing in and of itself, as Gady Epstein at Forbes perceptibly notes. As I wrote previously, the "substance" component was roughly what one would realistically expect, a slew of clean energy deals, many of which were building on agreements from 2009. But Hu's accommodating attitude on the "indigenous innovation" issue may turn out to be above and beyond expectations (more on this thorny issue later).

The Chinese president didn't come to town just to secure a "win" for China in the eyes of Americans of course. He wanted a "win" for himself in the eyes of the Chinese, to put a notable foreign policy feather in his cap as someone who righted a bilateral relationship that looked like it was venturing down the wrong hutong last year. The official Chinese media are working overtime to shape the image of Hu as a senior statesman, as evidenced by this Xinhua page-o'-hagiography (in Chinese) dedicated entirely to his trip. And the China Daily is obsessively pointing out specific diction in the joint statement as indicative of a "new era" in the relationship:

Reiterating their commitment to developing a positive, cooperative and comprehensive China-US relationship as they agreed in 2009, Chinese and US leaders also vowed to build "a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit", during Hu's visit to Washington...

...In a nutshell, every word matters in the new expression.

As "mutual respect" urges both China and the United States to respect each other's core interests and path of development, "mutual benefit" means that both countries are expected to achieve a win-win situation rather than a win-lose one, and bring about common prosperity.

"Partnership," meanwhile, shows that the two powers, instead of being rivals, are closely linked with each other in actions to cope with regional and international issues.

Those accustomed to the "Chinese way" should be familiar with the incessant emphasis on turns of phrase and discrete verbiage that might seem insignificant or anodyne to others. Agreeing at the outset on the "principles" of the relationship -- in this case "mutual respect" -- can be as important to the Chinese as the actual substance. Score 1 for Hu Jintao then (maybe?) since I'm sure the verbiage in the statement was strenuously negotiated. As the state media is pumping up the historic nature of the visit, it's unclear how much political capital Hu garnered as a result, or even how his performance sat with the irreverent and wily Chinese netizens.

I've already gotten some emails from Chinese friends in the U.S. who held low opinions of Hu's performance, purely based on optics. They were somewhat embarrassed by how catatonic and passive Hu looked in contrast to Obama, especially side-by-side. It seems rather silly, but it was Obama's "cool" factor that scared the bejesus out of Chinese officials during Obama's 2009 visit, which was one reason that it was so stage-managed. To be fair, they had a reason to be nervous. Netizens made an enormous deal out of the fact that Obama exited Air Force One on a rainy night with no entourage and no one holding an umbrella over him. This led to mockery that had it been even a mid-level Chinese official, he would've had a dozen people hold umbrellas for him [which implies "look at how unpretentious and equal America is...even their president travels solo in the rain!]. And when Obama decided to sprint up the steps of the Great Wall, that episode triggered yet another round of commentary about how young and healthy Obama appeared compared to aging Chinese officials who are always falling asleep during national meetings--photos of which are favorites among Chinese bloggers. If these two very "normal" episodes undertaken by an American president without an afterthought prompted a wave of admiration, how can Hu Jintao compete?! Soft power works in funny, unexpected ways.

I know I've already added to the glut of post-summit commentary, so I'll just conclude with a final thought. Those who suggest that the summit accomplished nothing or failed to solve monumental structural problems are missing the point. These presidential tete-a-tetes are necessary and should take place with regularity, even if they are logistical and expectations nightmares. Given the perennial mistrust between the #1 and #2 in the world, it is imperative that, at the very least, the presidents talk personally and frankly. The incentive is to rush to label the summit either a "failure" or "success", but the true consequences can only be known with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that it happened at all, and happened with relative success and wide, focused attention on both sides of the Pacific already speak volumes about the resilience of the relationship. That will have to be enough for now.