Obama in China, Who was the ultimate winner?

Liang Jing

As translated by David Kelly, Professor of China Studies, China Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney
Obama’s first visit to China was a major historical event, the full significance of which will take some time to interpret. In terms of its direct impact on domestic politics in the two countries, Obama clearly seemed to be the loser. Not only failing in arguing for a substantial appreciation of the yuan, and on the emission reduction issue, he also failed to obtain satisfactory commitments from China.
What made many Americans unhappy was that, in return for his humility and sincerity, Hu Jintao in response baited and humiliated Obama. Hu Jintao openly showed the international community and the Chinese people said that he was not afraid to use means harmful to the national and personal character, to impede and close down Obama’s exchanges with the Chinese people. This makes it difficult to say whether Hu lost rather than won points in domestic political terms.
Frankly I was not expecting Hu Jintao to bait Obama so boldly. There were certainly personal factors behind this: Obama excels in rhetoric and making speeches, while Hu Jintao never speaks in his own words, which would surely make himuncomfortable. Personal factors, however, should not be exaggerated. To a greater extent, what Hu Jintao’s baiting of Obama conveyed to the US and Obama was the collective message of the CCP power elite that their core interest is to oppose the “universal values” of the US and maintain their one-party dictatorship. To this end, they would not hesitate to use any means. Obama was told he shouldn’t naively imagine that switching from America’s previous arrogance about human rights to preaching them sincerely would make any impression on these hardened hearts.
This China trip will impact heavily on Obama’s judgment as to whether China’s rise is a curse or a blessing for the world and the US, and the correctness of his judgment will likewise impact significantly both on the US and China and indeed whole world. The potential threat of China’s rise to the US and the world is not so much that China aims to rule the world, but rather that should civil unrest occur in China, it would have enormous impact on the world economic and political order. Obama, if he is smart enough, should be able to see that behind the Chinese elite’s arrogance is an extreme lack of self-confidence that can’t be concealed.
The power elite is very clear that the people, the peasantry in particular, have paid a heavy price for China’s economic rise. Hundreds of millions of migrant peasants work all year round but are not accepted in the cities. It has become the norm for their families to be divided. According to official media, the total number of so-called “left-behind child­ren” has reached 58 million. The health and environmental problems accumulated by economic growth that are heedless of the cost, have become time bombs that cannot be removed and will start to detonate one after another. The garbage [incinerator] incident at Panyu, Guangdong, and another recent one, in which over a hundred Hunanese migrant workers suffering from pneumoconiosis went to Shenzhen to petition for help, are just the tip of the iceberg. How to solve China’s increasingly serious issue of social injustice given the imperative of maintaining political stability? Hu hasn’t a clue. Indeed, he doesn’t even hide the fact.
The following statement occurred in Hu’s speech at the recent APEC summit in Singapore: “The contradictions and problems encountered by China in its development process are, in terms of scale and complexity, rare in the world.” The implication was “I do not know what to do, nor does anyone else in the world.” [1]
But it is also true that he not only lacks the courage to do a lot of things he knows he should do, such as disclosing the private assets of officials, but also lacks the courage to make way for capable people, but rather allows China’s crisis to keep deepening. The mediocrity and incompetence of the leadership not only exacerbates the power elite’s frantic grabbing for wealth, but also incites more wealthy people, including many rich senior officials, to lose confidence in China’s future, and make preparations to flee the country at any time. One recent story which upset netizens concerns an official ruling by the Shenzhen government that those senior officials whose spouses and children have emigrated overseas may not be re-appointed to key positions. This amounts to open acceptance that many senior officials have already quit China for overseas locations in their minds. As for China’s wealthy, it is even more routine that many middle class families, even when on the verge of bankruptcy, are sending their children abroad. [2]
In this context, were China actually to substantially appreciate the yuan, as is hoped for in the West, it would mean the sharp appreciation of the assets of the government and the wealthy, and relatively sharp depreciation of those of the peasants, because the Chinese system severely restricts peasants’ share in urban and non-agricultural benefits. As a result, China’s internal crisis must rapidly deteriorate, and the mass exodus of capital and talent this would likely cause would trigger a full-scale crisis.
Is the US fully prepared for this? Does it know how to help China avoid this possibility? Evidently not. But only if the Americans and Obama have a better understanding of China, and in particular understand why Chinese people always “only bully their own rather than outsiders” (Qin Hui), can it help China out of this cultural trap. [3] Obama has decided to send one hundred thousand students to China over the next four years. This was an important decision that may well make him the ultimate winner. I place hope in a new generation of American politicians, capable of directly communicating with a new generation of Chinese elites and public, because only in this way is a Sino-American win-win possible.
* Liang Jing, “Shui shi zuihoude yingjia” [Who was the ultimate winner], Xin shiji, 2 December 2009 [梁京: “谁将是最后的赢家?”, 新世纪,2009年12月 2日 (here).].
[1] Zhao Yonggang, “Hu Jintao: Zhongguo fazhan suoyu wenti shijie hanjian” [Hu Jintao: problems China encounters in its development of a rare kind], Dazhong wang, 14 November 2009 [赵永刚: “胡锦涛:中国发展所遇问题世界罕见”, 大众网,2009年11月 14日 (here).].
[2] “Shenzhen: ‘Luo guan’: bu de danren dang zheng ‘yibashou’” [Shenzhen: ‘exposed officials’ not to be ‘in charge’ in party or government], Nanfang ribao, 26 November 2009 [Ôºö “深圳:“裸官”不得担任党政“一把手””, 南方日报,2009Âπ¥11Êúà 26Êó• (here).].
[3] Qin Hui, “Dui Xifang meiti ‘dadong ganhuo’ you shenme yong?” [What’s the use of ‘flaring up’ against the Western media?], Fenghuang zhoukan, no. 33, 27 November 2009 [秦晖: “对西方媒体“大动肝火”有什么用?”, 凤凰周刊 2009Âπ¥33Êúü 2009Âπ¥11Êúà 27Êó• (here).].

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