VIENNA, VA, February 15, 2012 – With a single sentence China’s presumed successor to President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping, showed an ability to beat American politicians at their own game.
The game of words.
For several influential US lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – a Wednesday meeting with Xi was the perfect opportunity to ask one of China’s most powerful leaders to address complaints that members of both parties have been rattling off to voters for months.
Most of the senators present wound up throwing only softballs, according to The Los Angeles Times.
But Republican Senator John McCain, of Arizona, decided to play hardball.
“I said that we admire all their progress,” he told The Times after the lawmakers’ private meeting with Xi. “We admire their economy – unfortunately we still have Buddhist monks, Tibetans, burning themselves to death, Nobel prize winners under house arrest, and I said I do not understand why you continue to prop up North Korea, which is a threat to the security of the world, and I want to know why you vetoed the resolution on Syria at the U.N. Security Council.”
There was silence. And then there was Xi’s answer, which began with: “Senator McCain, your candor is well-known in China.”
The room erupted with laughter, and Xi continued with the standard government answer, having jacked the senator’s first-pitch fastball out of the park.
Later, McCain griped to Politico about the Chinese vice president’s “standard” reply: “He basically had no response to it. Didn’t respond. He said, ‘Well, we understand we have progress to make on human rights and then also referred to the problems the United States has had with human rights.”
President Barack Obama, as well as the presidential candidates vying for the GOP nomination, have been tough on China’s trade practices, currency policy and human rights abuses.
Their arguments tap into Americans’ anger and frustration with the slow pace of recovery. Their arguments appeal to Americans’ sense of morality. And they presumably give the politicians a bump in donations – and, perhaps, in votes.
But all the huffing and puffing barely turns the weathervane on the house of China’s Communist Party. And there’s no way that talk alone is going to blow it all down.
Most Chinese following Xi’s US visit will not hear about the exchange with McCain. Even in the US, it will soon be forgotten.
But it is instructive for two reasons: One, it gives us a glimpse, albeit brief, of Xi’s considerable political skill. He’s part of a new generation of Chinese leaders who are more comfortable in the Western world. Two, Xi’s answer suggests that words alone, the “tough talk” of American politicians, do not intimidate the Chinese leadership.
The country’s brass understand the game that is being played because, after all, they have to play it, too.
For all of the challenges that China faces, and for all of the frustrations that boil over from time to time in the Middle Kingdom, the general public in China still sees the American charges of currency manipulation, trade violations and human rights abuses not as objective calls for fairness and morality, but as self-interested and hypocritical hot air.
This is why, when Xi said earlier in his visit that “we hope the US side will truly respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region, including China,” he was speaking not only to Americans, but also – primarily, even – to the people of China.
Calls for “mutual respect” ring true because much of the bluster coming out of Washington sounds, to the average Chinese, somewhat disrespectful.
With these words, Xi is playing a game that he can’t lose.
Which is why American lawmakers need to change the rules of the game. They need to combine respectful dialogue and discussion with creative and strategic action.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows recently gave an example of just what this smarter, more culturally-astute approach looks like.
He pointed to Obama’s decision near the end of 2011 to arrange for a permanent Marine presence in Australia. Obama forged this agreement with the Australians while also, through diplomatic and public channels, commending China for its successes.
“The strategy was Sun Tzu-like in its patient pursuit of an objective: re-establishing American hard and soft power [in the Asia-Pacific region] while presenting a smiling ‘We welcome your rise!’ face to the Chinese,” Fallows wrote.
Obama’s move won praise all around, even from Republicans.
More importantly, it’s a model that can be used to advance American interests going forward.
The game has changed, and US leaders should be prepared to change with it.
Charlie Shifflett spent six years in China, including four working as a writer and section editor at a state-owned weekly newspaper in Beijing. He is currently the website and communications manager for the international micro-finance non-profit Five Talents, in Vienna, Virginia.
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