China's President Hu Jintao's four-day state visit to the United States that ended on Friday has unleashed an avalanche of empty verbiage, courtesy of the two governments, their media enablers, the punditocracy, and the blogosphere.
The trip, a victory lap for Hu prior to his retirement next year, appears essentially devoid of significant accomplishments or developments, unless you are a stockholder in Boeing (and can celebrate a US$19 billion payday occasioned partially, if not completely, by China's desire to facilitate the visit with some feel-good tangibles for President Barack Obama and China's friends in American big business).
Thankfully, a few useful observations can be extracted from the rhetoric and visuals surrounding the visit.
First, 2011 is not 2006.
|US President Barack Obama (R) Chinese President Hu Jintao (C) and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive for the State Dinner at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 19. AFP
In 2006, the occasion of Hu's previous visit, George W Bush was still riding high in the early years of his second term. The "war on terror", with a few bumps, was rolling along and doing in the surviving members of the "axis of evil" - North Korea and Iran - was at the top of the foreign policy agenda after the third member, Iraq, had already been dealt with. Confronting China - long a preoccupation of vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney - to moderate its support of North Korea and Iran was an important priority.
In April 2006, when Hu visited, the US campaign to financially isolate and destabilize North Korea - initiated with the Treasury finding that Macau's Banco Delta Asia (BDA) was a "financial institution of money laundering concern" and toppled it into insolvency - was in full swing.
And China was feeling the heat.
As the architect of the effort, David Asher, subsequently testified to the US congress, the objective of the BDA designation was an aggressive effort to "kill the chicken in order to scare the monkey", that is, intimidate China into actively participating in the financial blockade of North Korea by threatening its own institutions such as the People's Bank of China with a BDA-type designation if it continued its dealings with the Pyongyang regime.
The campaign, led by Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey, was global in reach and reportedly successful enough to force some Chinese banks into cutting banking ties with North Korea. However, the US did not succeed in getting the Chinese government to change its North Korea policy or even abandon its support for BDA.
China's role as an impediment to Bush administration policies did not make for a particularly hospitable environment for Hu's visit.
As Dana Milbank reported at the time:
The protocol-obsessed Chinese leader suffered a day full of indignities - some intentional, others just careless. The visit began with a slight when the official announcer said the band would play the "national anthem of the Republic of China" - the official name of Taiwan. It continued when Vice President Cheney donned sunglasses for the ceremony, and again when Hu, attempting to leave the stage via the wrong staircase, was yanked back by his jacket. Hu looked down at his sleeve to see the president of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant child.
Then there were the intentional slights. China wanted a formal state visit such as Jiang [Zemin] got, but the administration refused, calling it instead an "official" visit. Bush acquiesced to the 21-gun salute but insisted on a luncheon instead of a formal dinner, in the East Room instead of the State Dining Room. Even the visiting country's flags were missing from the lampposts near the White House. [China and Its President Greeted by a Host of Indignities, Washington Post, Apr 21, 2006.]
In addition to his sunglass-donning transgression, Cheney also had to deny he had marked Hu's Oval Office briefing by taking a nap in his chair (thereby, perhaps inadvertently, leaving the impression that he had actually chosen to feign sleep in order to show his contempt for the red supremo).
The capper to the disastrous visit was the outburst of Dr Wang Wenyi, Falungong's point person on the issue of vivisection and organ harvesting allegedly inflicted on Falungong practitioners by the Chinese government.
Despite having been denied press credentials by Maltese security during a previous overseas trip of Hu's, somehow Wang was able to evade the scrutiny of the White House press office and acquire a one-day credential for Hu's visit as the press rep of Falungong's Epoch Times.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that somebody in the press office thought it might be a fun prank to throw Hu together with a Falungong activist.
In 2006, the Secret Service did not cover itself in glory, either, as Milbank described: 90 seconds into Hu's speech on the South Lawn, the woman started shrieking, "President Hu, your days are numbered!" and "President Bush, stop him from killing!"
Bush and Hu looked up, stunned. It took so long to silence her - a full three minutes - that Bush aides began to wonder if the Secret Service's strategy was to let her scream herself hoarse. The rattled Chinese president haltingly attempted to continue his speech and television coverage went to split screen.
Fast-forward to 2011.
China is perhaps the second-largest economy in the world, has weathered the "great recession" nicely, and has sufficient cash and clout for Hu to avoid being treated like a punk dictator on this trip.
Hu received the full state visit treatment from Obama, including not one but two dinners with the president. He was also treated nicely by Vice President Joe Biden, who greeted him at Andrews Air Force Base with the red carpet and a military color guard.
During the joint press conference, Hu was heckled by demonstrators across the street but nobody arose from the press gaggle to scream at him. (Nevertheless, China cautiously blacked out the CNN live feed of the press conference, leading to a predictable spate of "Commies Can't Handle the Truth" news reports and blog posts).
Tough talk on Chinese currency and human rights issues and Beijing's irritating habit of supporting North Korea and Iran was carefully modulated, with both leaders performing a predictable and rather tedious tango for the benefit of the media.
Therefore, in the area of visuals, China got what it wanted: acknowledgment, not necessarily of its status as a burgeoning regional power, but of its role as an important US interlocutor.
Hu's visit puts China on a par with US strategic allies India (state visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, November 2009) , and the Republic of Korea (state visit by President Lee Myung-bak, June 2010), while nosing out Japan (which, presumably as punishment for its political dysfunction and inability to toe the US line on relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Base on Okinawa, has been forced to content itself with a non-state official visit by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, September 2010).
The writer Peter Lee edits China Hand. For the full version of this article visit: http://www.counterpunch.com/lee01212011.html