Hu-Obama Summit is a Theatre of The Absurds

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As President Hu Jintao sets on his return journey from the El’dorado, it is difficult to disagree with Prof. Peter Morici of the University of Maryland School that the Hu-Obama summit was no more than a theatre of the absurd despite the good coverage both had managed to discuss.

Look at the absurdity that stared at Hu Jintao at the very entrance to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building when he walked in with his host, President Obama on Wednesday. Facing him were a group of 18 American and Chinese business magnets who have been battered and bruised in the new economic battlefield inside China itself.

Consider the absurdity on display at the Hu-Obama presser, which made Associated Press’s Ben Feller an instant media hero. His gutsy, forceful question (to President Hu) ‘How do you justify China’s record (on human rights) and do you think that’s any of the business of the American people’, was not heard and seen in China as the press conference was not telecast live and when the excerpts were published/telecast, all references to human rights were ‘down played’ (read deleted). Interestingly the censorship applied to Hu’s reply which came after Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols, gave him a lesson in press freedoms and said rather impertinently, “I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question.”

As the Washington Post remarked, Feller and Nichols put the Chinese leader on the spot in a way that Obama, constrained by protocol, could not have done. The answer to the question when it came in the end was a honest home truth though.

“China is a developing country with a huge population and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform,” Hu told the American journalists, after taking cover for initial reluctance to field the question under poor translation. “In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development, and a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”

Human rights theme appeared in the meetings American lawmakers had with the Chinese leader. From the saturation coverage President Hu got in the American media it appears that there was some unwritten understanding between President Obama and US Congress leaders that the White House would focus on business and strategic issues while the House leaders would concern themselves largely with human rights.

And on their part the House leaders also clearly marked out their own red lines. So it didn’t come as a surprise that during the hour long meeting, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) emphasized intellectual property protections and security on the Korean Peninsula, while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addressed human rights matters.

So, when President Hu spoke about focusing more on promoting ‘social equity and justice’ at a lunch hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on United States-China Relations, it was a surprise to his interlocutors. But the remarks were his way of assuring the American business community that they have no reason to worry, and that his country would remain committed to upholding a ‘policy of reform’ and “opening up,” which in essence is an euphemism for buying more from America.

Said Hu to the delight of his audience, “Despite the remarkable achievements in China’s development, we are keenly aware that China is still the largest developing country in the world…..We still have a long way to go before we achieve our national development goals.”

He went on to add: “We will develop socialist democracy and build a socialist country under the rule of law. . . . We will make continuous progress in our endeavor to build a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious modern socialist country…..We will stick to the basic state policy of opening to the outside world.”

The luncheon speech, as it turns out, was the only public policy speech of his state visit to the United States. He started saying, “It is fair to say that our two countries have never enjoyed such broad common interests and shouldered such important common responsibilities as we do today…”.He held out the homely – both countries must treat each other ‘with respect and as equals.”

And assured Americans that China would not engage in an arms race with the United States, pose a military threat to any country or pursue expansionism.

Neither Hu nor his American interlocutors – the American media including, made any reference to the visit of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to China in the week preceding the Hu-Obama summit. The Chinese military test flying their new stealth fighter to greet Gates’s arrival in Beijing.

Theatre of the absurd cannot be wished away by conciliatory gestures like China slowing its investments in Iran, appearing to lean more heavily on North Korea, and not standing in the way of Southern Sudan’s referendum.

Also by the $45 billion in export deals -China’s purchase of 200 Boeing aircraft including – that would support an estimated 235,000 American jobs, and possibly lower China’s $270 billion trade surplus with the United States.

American companies have always had a love-hate relationship with China – with the manufacturing companies in the South and steel companies in the Midwest urging Washington to take tough action against Beijing, and advanced manufacturers and high-tech companies that want access to the Chinese market place pressing for a more conciliatory tone.

Yes, the chill of 2010, which was ushered in by a $6.3bn US arms sale to Taiwan is an old chapter. So was the heckling from a Falun Gong protester that marred the official ceremonies to welcome the arrival of President Hu to Washington in 2006. This time around the 21-gun salute and the guard of honour went without a hitch.

Handshakes and smiles and the red-carpet do matter in diplomatic atmospherics. But they fail to hide the scars for far too long.

Over to the Sinologits of all hues to pour over the fine print, and to detect the glint in the eye hiding behind Rimmed Glasses…. because as Layzee Daze Lyrics say ‘At first glance he seems just another, But the glint in his eye would question more’.