Winning Hu’s heart
By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.
From working lunch to “private dinner”, Texas ranch to the White House, and George Bush to Barack Obama, you can clearly see the differences in the approaches of the two U.S. presidents to welcoming Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The aim is almost the same, to win the heart and mind of Hu before the United States tries to convince him and his country to increase cooperation with the U.S. on a range of tough issues – for example, North Korea.
Influential Chinese newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald reported that First Lady Michelle Obama would “supervise White House chefs” over the food to be served during the state visit. Earlier, Obama said he would treat Hu to a “private dinner”, a very rare arrangement for visiting heads of state to the U.S., affording the two gentlemen private space for a more frank conversation at the White House.
The Chinese-language report highlighting Michelle Obama’s supervisory role at the private dinner was an attention-grabber and one of the most-read articles on many leading Chinese news portals so far this week. Many Chinese netizens praised Mrs. Obama’s kind offer to treat China’s “top boss”. It would seem that before Obama has even had a chance to win the heart and mind of Hu, his wife has already scored brownie points among the Chinese public.
Things were very different just five years ago. In 2006, when George Bush was president and invited Hu to visit, he initially suggested that Hu visit his private ranch in Texas. When the news went public, the reaction in China must have surprised Bush.
Many traditional, middle-aged Chinese people didn’t really like the idea of Hu being received at Bush’s personal ranch instead of the White House. Some Chinese scholars also publicly criticized the idea, which they believed failed to reflect the seriousness and importance of Sino-U.S. ties. In the end, Hu didn’t go to the ranch, but had to settle for lunch at the White House.
No dinner? Chinese people generally prefer dinner to lunch. Lunch is a more specific, purpose-focused meal, for example the business lunches that bankers in Hong Kong so often attend. Lunch is about the talk more than food. It’s not really about winning the heart and mind of the guest, but a more pragmatic approach to make him help you solve certain problems.
The Chinese way of dealing with friendships is that you’d better bring your Chinese friend to a formal dinner – the more formal, the better it demonstrates how serious you are about the relationship. This time, Obama scored the point. A private dinner at the White House, the counterpart of Zhongnanhai, where Chinese leaders live in Beijing, sounds like a sufficiently friendly and serious approach to please Hu and improve the Sino-U.S. ties.
For various reasons, Hu’s last visit to the United States was not considered a happy or successful trip by many political analysts and scholars.
Remember the story about the Chinese national anthem played at the White House on Bush’s official reception for Hu? Thank God. The anthem was correct – the one for the People’s Republic of China. But it was announced by the U.S. solider responsible for hospitality at the ceremony as the anthem of the Republic of China, in other words Taiwan! Just imagine how Hu must have felt when he heard the words: “Now, the national anthem for the Republic of China”.
Many things have taken place in the five years since, and the rise of China is something no one can ignore, although whether the rise is peaceful or an emerging threat to the region or even the world is a new subject of debate for many.
It seems Obama understands China better than his predecessor, or he has to understand China better given its bigger impact on world affairs. The more prudent rather than self-important, and a more personal rather than state-arrogant approach by Obama towards Hu and China may reflect new attitude toward Sino-U.S. relations for both sides.
However, that doesn’t mean the international community should hold up their hopes too high for the outcome of the meeting. A private dinner may help win Hu’s heart, but you can’t expect him to immediately get tough on North Korea after he returns home. The same goes for Sino-U.S. trade, yuan appreciation and so on. Chinese leaders prefer to “proceed step by step” or 循序渐进 (xun xu jian jin) as they say in Chinese.
So, how should we measure the success of Hu’s trip to the United States? My personal view is that the top priority for Obama and the U.S. government is to win Hu’s heart and mind first. Once you make him happy, improve mutual trust and create some sort of chemistry, then you just need a spark to start addressing the other issues.
George Chen is a Reuters editor and columnist based in Hong Kong.
Photo: China’s President Hu Jintao waves upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington for a state visit, January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed