What ‘New Era?’ Counter-factual Bush Fatigue, and other notes on the Press, Obama, and China.

If you’ve bothered to read, watch, or listen to the post-post-Obama-in-China commentary over the last forty-right hours, you’d be excused for thinking that the Presidential visit had just closed a tumultuous chapter in the history of Sino-US relations. And, in fact, that’s precisely how many observers – a good portion of them glad to have anything and anyone associated with the Bush Administration – swept out of the way, feel. There’s only one problem with this view of the new era in Sino-US relations: under the Bush Administration, especially its second half, the Sino-US relationship improved markedly. In fact, even some of the harshest critics of Bush’s foreign policy adventures will concede – when pressed – that Bush (who visited China four times – more than any other President – and held 19 face-to-face meetings with Hu Jintao) ran, on balance, a sympathetic China policy with Clark Randt, his ambassador. At a minimum, the Chinese media understood and understand it; take, for example, this 2007 China Daily interview with Randt on the occasion of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, and – in its last paragraphs – the list of exchanges and partnerships. Or, for that matter, this January 2009 interview with Randt, in which he uses language not unlike that being wielded by the Obama administration, now.

So why the “new era” revisionism? I’m not a Bush defender. But I do believe that some of the coverage of the Obama trip – and its emphasis on a “new era” (best exemplified by this overwrought piece by Peter Foster in the Daily Telegraph) – is motivated by Bush fatigue, and a sympathetic desire to embrace Obama’s unilateralist diplomacy. Fine and good. But let’s be straight about it and – at the same time – not dismiss as “horse race afficionados” those who wonder whether it’s reasonable to expect some immediate benefits for the effort.

Sure, Obama was justified in wanting to show proper respect to his Chinese hosts, but while Obama and his aides demonstrated their mastery of “how to give face to Chinese leaders” in pursuit of their new diplomacy, the Chinese leadership seems to have forgotten the rules for “giving face to American leaders:” that is, they didn’t bother to give Obama a single accomplishment or deal that he could tout on his way out of Beijing. I’m not talking about Iran, currency revaluation, or Copenhagen; I’m talking about, hell, an agreement to purchase a bunch of Boeing passenger jets, (a traditional gift from Chinese leaders to visiting US presidents, after all). Something. Instead, they sent him empty-handed into the arms of a White House press corps with an institutional memory of Presidential visits to China, – that is, a press corps that surely knows the difference between tangible accomplishments and empty press releases (as does the Chinese leadership, make no mistake).

Naturally, the White House press corps – no dummies, despite efforts by many current and former China-based correspondents to depict them as lost rubes – published and broadcast exactly what they saw: basically, nothing. Seemed reasonable to me, too. But, apparently I’m mistaken. In the last forty-eight hours, the new US ambassador (whom I like), White House officials, and – no surprise – current and former China correspondents have fired back in defense of the Obama Administration, and at a Press Corps which – they suggest – failed to appreciate the importance of things accomplished behind closed (for which press briefings were not scheduled). My friend Jim Fallows has championed this view in several eloquent, pointed posts that make some very convincing arguments (“manufactured failure” is a phrase that I now plan to deploy for my own uses, Jim!).

But I have to take exception with the implicit premise advanced in the “insider’s view” of the Obama trip that Fallows is running on his blog over the weekend. The interview series – conducted with an unnamed person who traveled on the Obama mission – skewers the press for misunderstanding the trip, while providing information to Fallows about what happened behind closed doors — information that wasn’t provided to (most of, at least) the press before or during the trip. In other words, the White House appears to be criticizing the press for not knowing the information that the White House never provided before or during the trip! But really – to whom should the blame be affixed for that oversight? The critical NYT reporters who appear to have irritated the White House? Or the White House?

If – like me – you believe that the fault is with the White House (again, why didn’t the insider make that information available in a call or background briefing before flying to Shanghai?), then you probably agree with the White House press corps that the China visit was a political failure. Whether or not that’s the correct, long-term view to take of Obama’s outreach is something that all of us – critics and sympathizers – will have to wait to be revealed in due course. But it’s certainly a reasonable position, and one that doesn’t deserve the condescending and often ill-informed “you just don’t understand China, you don’t understand proper diplomacy” sniping coming from the White House.

My own background source, someone with long experience in China (who wasn’t on the trip), assessed the occasion this way: “Yes, a new era in Sino-American relations: The Chinese put Obama in his place, that is, captain of a foundering ship that must inevitably make way for the Chinese juggernaut on straight course for ever increasing prosperity and influence, all foreign ports beckoning to it.”

That’s what I saw, too.

[Credit to Matt Stinson and his twitter feed for “counter-factual Bush fatigue.”]


  1. Do you remember when President Hu went to the White House and the band “accidentally” played the Taiwanese national anthem and then a Falun Gong supporter who just happened to “slip through” security started screaming bloody murder in front of everybody? Obama’s reception in China was a toned down version of that. They screwed him to the wall face-wise.

  2. Anyone consider the reason Obama didn’t have any accomplishments to boast about is because his backroom deals are bad for America? He was much too busy securing more debt purchasing from the Chinese than doing anything productive for us mere proles!

  3. I saw your comment at the Fallows blog and found your blog on google. Thanks for writing this post. The White House is in damange control mode. It knows it was outfoxed in China and it knows it did a lousy job on briefings and raising expectations. Now, nstead of conceding a few mistakes along the way they’re tarring the press for the screw up.

  4. Only time and Bush Jr.’s memoirs may prove so, but judging from GW’s act of pulling around Hu Jintao on public stage and other incidents during Hu’s visit to the US mentioned by the first poster, I suspect GW at the time was reciprocating conduct he received during a previous visit to China; it would certainly be true to his character and his sense of pride in the Presidency. Now it seems the Chinese are playing tit-for-tat and Obama is the untoward recipient this round.

  5. 4 issues are shaping the press’s coverage: black prisident, lack of achievement in the home front, balance coverge, plausible denisability

    Obama is the first black, paradigm breaking, president, the press does not want to criticize him as much as possible. Obama had achieved little in domestic issues, not criticizing him or criticizing him less on domestic issues means criticizing him elsewhere or the prsss will appear as unbalanced. Of course, it is also safer to criticize him on his trip to China because his lack of achievement can be construced as China’s fault.

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