Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Obama, the Great Wall, and Nixon’s Ghost

Not since Tricky Dick's historic 1972 trip to China has any U.S. president's visit been truly groundbreaking -- but both the U.S. and Chinese media strove to add drama to Obama's recent Beijing foray, in radically different ways.

Saul Loeb/ Getty Images
Saul Loeb/ Getty Images
Saul Loeb/ Getty Images

State visits are all about harnessing symbolism. When Henry Kissinger went to China in 1971 to negotiate for Richard Nixon's historic visit, the Chinese agreed to time the announcement of the invitation so that the American press could hit their then-weekly news cycle. Nixon's visit the following year symbolized the end of more than 20 years of antagonism.

All subsequent U.S. presidents visiting China have struggled with Nixon's legacy. Some things have changed since 1972, not least the antediluvian idea of a weekly news cycle, but presidential visits to China remain more symbolic than substantive. Years of diplomatic spade work drive actual policy changes, leaving government communication offices, pundits, and journalists to construct a narrative from stage-managed vignettes, choreographed meetings, and turgid communiqués, or to pull odds and ends from the margins. Different agendas produce different narratives, and sometimes the real picture emerges from the totality of coverage, like a poster emerging from a mosaic of small photographs.

State visits are all about harnessing symbolism. When Henry Kissinger went to China in 1971 to negotiate for Richard Nixon’s historic visit, the Chinese agreed to time the announcement of the invitation so that the American press could hit their then-weekly news cycle. Nixon’s visit the following year symbolized the end of more than 20 years of antagonism.

All subsequent U.S. presidents visiting China have struggled with Nixon’s legacy. Some things have changed since 1972, not least the antediluvian idea of a weekly news cycle, but presidential visits to China remain more symbolic than substantive. Years of diplomatic spade work drive actual policy changes, leaving government communication offices, pundits, and journalists to construct a narrative from stage-managed vignettes, choreographed meetings, and turgid communiqués, or to pull odds and ends from the margins. Different agendas produce different narratives, and sometimes the real picture emerges from the totality of coverage, like a poster emerging from a mosaic of small photographs.

That was the case with President Barack Obama’s widely heralded visit to China. Expectations were high. China’s significance in global affairs has blossomed in the past decade. A charismatic and more multilaterally inclined U.S. president, a resurgent and confident China, and a host of headline-dominating issues including climate change, trade, and the aftermath of the financial crisis suggested a visit that, while not approaching the magnitude of 1972, could at least be substantive.

Despite that potential, much of the pre-visit American coverage sounded defensive. In stories that ran in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNN, the messaging of the American government was clear: There is room for both of us; China’s rise is not bad for America. Newsweek fretted about the decline of American influence in the Pacific under George Bush’s presidency. In an AP story, an analyst suggested that the United States brought "nothing to the table in Asia." The coverage painted a picture of a chastened superpower, pleading for a stronger renminbi and acutely aware of owing nearly a trillion dollars to Beijing.

No such soul-searching was visible in the tightly managed pre-visit coverage of the Chinese press. Typically for such a high-level visit, the tone was set by Xinhua, the Chinese state-owned news service. Xinhua stories relayed the comments of various Chinese officials expressing confidence in the success of Obama’s visit, although without offering a definition of what "success" entailed. The importance of trade relations was a dominant theme. China Daily, the main English language newspaper, offered a hopeful editorial praising Obama for being the first U.S. president to listen to the opinions of other nations.

Chinese and U.S. press coverage during the visit was no more convergent. Early U.S. coverage focused on the process, including the sudden evaporation of "Obamao" T-Shirts from stalls in Beijing and an attempt to apply American retail political methods to China via a "town hall" meeting with Shanghai university students. Were the students Party members? Were the questions planted? Obama’s delicate balancing act in answering a question on Internet censorship was analyzed at length and widely disparaged ("I’m a big supporter of non-censorship" was the delicate formulation). USA Today noted how difficult it was for people not attending the town hall to watch it online or elsewhere. Chinese media, meanwhile, kept their focus squarely on the positive themes of the talk.

With the shift from Shanghai preliminaries to the headline activities in Beijing the momentum of the coverage changed. American media lost interest in the banquets and scripted formal events, sticking to terse stories on the anodyne pledges that emerged from the meetings. Even the joint press conference with Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao generated scant heat, possibly because there was little time for questions following the prepared statements. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China published a statement complaining about the truncated press conference. Obama did give an exclusive to the notoriously independent Chinese magazine Southern Weekend, but his published comments were safely diplomatic. Nevertheless, the interview was missing from print copies of Southern Weekend delivered to several foreign news bureaus in Beijing.

In contrast to American media, protocol-sensitive Chinese state media charged into overdrive during the formal activities. People’s Daily, the main national Party newspaper, devoted its entire November 18th front page to the ceremonies. In typical fashion, the stories were on-message recitations of the events, with deadpan headlines such as, "Hu hosts welcome ceremony for U.S. President Obama" and "China, US issue joint statement." As it did before the visit, state media set the tone for coverage throughout the Chinese press, emphasizing several familiar messages: "Obama supports the ‘One China’ policy"; "Obama welcomes China as ‘strong, prosperous and successful’"; and that evergreen trope of Chinese state visits, "Obama impressed by the Great Wall". It wasn’t electrifying, but it was consistent and relentlessly positive.

The Chinese government can steer the outcome of press coverage in ways that the American government must envy in its darker moments. Having declared the visit a success in advance, there was little doubt that it would be reported as such. Chinese Internet users, a better window to popular sentiment than state media and apparently immune to Obama’s legendary charisma, were harsher in their judgment. They called the U.S. president out on protectionism, questioned the U.S. stance on Tibet, and raised other contentious issues.

Ultimately, the real story of Obama’s visit emerged neither in the individual news stories nor in the dull communiqué, but in what Chinese and American coverage revealed about sentiment in the two nations. China’s ascendance is a given. From the Chinese point of view, the visit was a trouble-free tour that offered a chance to showcase a U.S. president, still a potent international symbol of power, publicly reiterating a properly deferential position on China’s rise.

The American conclusion was darker, perhaps reflecting national anxieties about American resolve and the relationship with China. Despite reported behind-the-scenes tough talk on human rights, several newspapers reflected on the visit’s vague accomplishments and unanswered questions. And the San Francisco Chronicle rendered the most succinct and brutal judgment: "It was hardly three days that shook the world."

For those seeking a world-changing visit, it seems that Nixon’s ghost still lingers in Beijing.

<p>William Moss is director of corporate practice for Burson-Marsteller China.</p>

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