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Saving Face to Save the World: The New Sino-American Relation

16 Nov 2009

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA admits his own thumbs are too clumsy for tweeting, but how about the eager thumbs of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens?

Speaking on Sino-American collaboration, human rights, and internet censorship, Obama offered pointed but measured answers to students at a Shanghai town-hall meeting this Monday. His implicit critique that a free, transparent information society made a stronger society came as a good yet quiet surprise.

“These freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights,” the president said to an audience of 500 some university students, handpicked and coached by Chinese officials. “They should be available to all people.”

Whether out of pragmatism or peaceful aspirations, the Obama administration’s gentle provocation of Chinese censorship will inevitably stimulate debate over these “universal rights”–most resonantly amongst China’s own web-savvy population–but also preserve cordial relations that may prove crucial to American economic survival and cross-cultural education.

Read on after the break.

So far President Obama’s trip to Asia has struck a benign, conciliatory tone – an attempt to restore America’s image abroad following the Iraq war. Symbolic highlights have included the American president bowing in greeting to the Emperor of Japan (provoking uproarious outcry in the right-wing blogosphere — seriously, grow up) and sitting down to talk with the Burmese military junta. The nudge towards an open international discourse is slow and tricky, with accusations of Obama taking too soft, too appeasing of a stance.

“I don’t find the critics credible,” refuted Obama in a Reuters interview. “If you look at my statements, they have been entirely consistent. We believe in the values of freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, that are not just core American values but we believe are universal values.”

Obama had already touched on these criticisms of hypocrisy and inadequacy in his town-hall talks, admitting to America’s imperfections (albeit in abstract terms, as most examples were framed historically) and stressing the need for socio-political dialogue between what has been observed as increasingly equal nations. In light of China’s emerging capacity as the world’s third largest economy and the greatest foreign holder of U.S. debt, its pattern of undaunted censorship clearly is an issue that demands a steady hand, sensitive diplomacy, and as the Washington Post phrased it, “delicate chiding”.

Despite there being no overt critique of the Chinese record, Jeffrey Bader, National Security Council director for East Asian affairs, reassuringly stated that Obama would raise “issues of freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of religion, rule of law and certainly Tibet” in his meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Pressing human rights concerns such as Chinese arms sales to Sudan (thus sustaining the genocide in Darfur) and the crackdown during the Ürümqi and Tibet protests certainly should be explored, and though unfortunately Obama made no effort to discuss these specific affairs during the town-hall meeting, perhaps we’re all the better for it. Let me explain.

Consciously aware or not, Obama seems astutely privy to the Chinese government’s cultural emphasis on face. Three characters in the Chinese language meaning “face” (面, 臉, and 顏) also can be defined in terms of “honour” or “prestige”, a concept of social status which, according to anthropologist Hu Hsien-chin, can be further dichotomised as one’s mianzi (“reputation achieved through…success and ostentation”) and lian (“the confidence of society in the integrity of ego’s moral character”). Prominent 20th century author Lu Xun characterised the sociological concept as such:

The term “face” keeps cropping up in our conversation, and it seems such a simple expression that I doubt whether many people give it much thought. Recently, however, we have heard this word on the lips of foreigners too, who seem to be studying it. They find it extremely hard to understand, but believe that “face” is the key to the Chinese spirit and that grasping it will be like grabbing a queue twenty-four years ago [when wearing a queue was compulsory] – everything else will follow.

The Communist Party’s preservation of face feeds directly into their fear of undermined government control. Most recently, the German state-funded “Berlin Wall” Twitter page was blocked by Beijing following numerous comments made calling likewise for the fall of the “Great Firewall of China”. Transcripts of Obama’s speech, too, were ironically quashed on the net and the meeting was, of course, only televised locally. Obama has decided, admirably, to work gradually at concessions. Restrained by political circumstance, he must also operate within this cultural context of face – a key lesson in cross-cultural relations, if you will.

Human rights groups have protested Obama’s decision to delay his meeting with the Dalai Lama, ostensibly to settle Chinese officials prior to the U.S. president’s arrival. Indeed, it was a move greeted with approval from Beijing. But encouraging was the agreement on both sides to “move this discussion [on human rights] forward” during a human rights dialogue next year. Walking on water wasn’t built in a day, Allen Ginsberg famously said, and perhaps we should recognise this as a necessary sacrifice. It’s an uncannily fusion of pragmatism and idealism in politics.

In the meantime, as the two governments progress in other urgent issues such as the economy and climate change, we can concurrently fight hard for human rights with alternative outlets. Non-profits, humanitarian organisations, grassroots campaigns. The very blogs and tweets Beijing want stamped out, circumventing their censors via proxy servers. Obama realises he doesn’t have that luxury of trawling in brashly, American guns waving. They’re all China-made anyway.

It is also important to note that American hard power holds little leverage with which to affect any advantageous–or for that matter, positive–change. China already holds the largest standing army in the world and has effectively assumed the role as major financier of the United States’ own army. As of July 2009, the U.S. owes China over 800 billion dollars in debt, nearly 24% of U.S. Treasury Securities and much of which is being used to fund the War of Terror. On top of all this, the White House is requesting 130 billion dollars in addition to the 533.7 billion dollar defense budget set for 2010 – including 65 billion for Afghanistan and 61 billion for Iraq. With military resources already spread thin, the United States cannot afford to employ much more elsewhere without suffering devastating consequences. So these are issues both nations must begin to haggle over, but on respectful grounds that eschew hard power threats.

Curiously, the GOP seems to mimic the Communist Party in its desperate insistence on “saving face”. Are they too proud–or perhaps too paranoid–to acknowledge the rise of a powerful peer on the world stage? Or in a bout of cowboy animosity, perhaps they hope to frame the dynamic as a New Cold War. Washington Post analysts Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal argued in a Nov 9 op-ed article that the Obama administration’s new policy of “strategic reassurance” is especially impossible in the face of China’s military build-up and increased aid to Africa and South Asia (thus extending its political influence).

Guided by the nations’ interdependency (China on America’s investors and service industry and America on China’s exports and trade surplus), this is an era in which Obama hopes the notions that China and America “must be adversaries is not predestined” and that nations of varied ideologies can prosper cooperatively. I am reminded of my Peking University economics professor’s comment: “China doesn’t want to rule the world. We just want to get rich, like everybody else.”

Of course, then there’s the tricky matter of “universal values”. It’s a phrase reminiscent of former president George Dubya Bush’s “universality of freedom.” How do we navigate what is “right” in this world, criticising the Chinese police presence in Xinjiang while allowing the American occupation of the Middle East to continue?

Hopefully, Obama’s approach of constructive and conciliatory dialogue will be a positive start to the Sino-American relationship and to a progressive acknowledgment of human rights. And hopefully, in the meantime, the Chinese consumer may be just what the U.S. needs to put an end to an economic crisis that doesn’t seem to be going anytime soon.

Is this a New Cold War? Is this American appeasement? Do you support Obama’s approach? Comment below and let me know.


Watch the first four parts of the town-hall meeting below.


Obama’s opening remarks in China town-hall meeting


Part 1 of Q&A


Part 2 of Q&A


Part 3 of Q&A

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 Feb 2010 9:29 PM

    Sup good entry. Did you manage to watch last nights Niel Cuvuto? That is some great writing material lol. Laters

    • 23 Feb 2010 10:01 PM

      Hey, thanks very much! I didn’t see last night’s Neil Cavuto; I don’t really follow FOX News, as you can probably tell haha. What did he talk about?

  2. 17 Feb 2010 11:11 AM

    Howdy- I have a habit of exploring the net and stumbled upon (no pun intended) your journal! All in all, it’s is very nice, I, for 1, like the design. If you get a second can you shoot me an email at bobbymc@live.com and let me know who designed it or where you found it? Thank you in advance.

  3. 19 Nov 2009 8:56 PM

    I think it goes without saying that it is “the new Sino-American relation” that will define how the future unfolds; in fact, it already has been defining world affairs in all spheres of life. Obama’s diplomatic policy is in no way “weak and submissive”, but rather laying the foundation for partnership between the two nations. To say that this is a new Cold War would be a flawed comparison, considering how inextricably intertwined the fates of these two superpowers really are.

    And this partnership is a necessary one, if we are to, as you put it, save the world. The climate crisis, the recession, global wars, the fear of a pandemic — all of these are threats on the table today. If we are to tackle any of them, a cordial and united Sino-American coalition must be the one to lead the way. So, Obama’s strides in diplomacy are not in vain, nor are they forms of American appeasement. If we do want to address the global issues on the horizon, we’ve got to pull our heads out of our asses and recognize that China does hold the key to solving those problems.

  4. 17 Nov 2009 4:25 AM

    i’ve read a few articles that alternatively claim this to be the beginning of the end of American dominance, characterising Obama’s actions as overly weak and submissive. let me know what you guys think.

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