By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the two Washingtons last year, he received red-carpet welcomes — first from Gov. Jay Inslee in our state, and then later, from President Obama in D.C.
On Sept. 3, President Obama, visiting China for the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, got a different reception. No rolling staircase. No red carpet. No receiving line from the dignitaries of Hangzhou or Chinese officials. No ceremony. Nothing. Obama had to emerge from a (seldom-used) door in the belly part of the plane. Later, a Chinese official and the U.S. official had a tense exchange.
I was part of the about 20-member welcoming committee last September, witnessing the fanfare that our state had prepared to welcome Xi at Paine Field. Our state had spent over $1 million just for Xi’s security, in addition to other expenses during his visit. So I was surprised when I read the recent headlines, “Obama’s China visit off to a bumpy start,” “Confrontations Flare as Obama’s Traveling Party Reaches China,” “Rocky Start,” or “No red carpet treatment for Obama at G20.”
What scares China?
President Obama’s presence, and him bringing an entourage of journalists, makes China nervous.
Lately, China has been increasingly sensitive to media coverage, especially if it’s critical or shows them in a bad light. It has tightened control measures by blacklisting foreign media and journalists who report stories deemed less flattering to China, threatening them, barring them from entering the country, denying them press credentials, and even arresting a few.
With the G20 Summit being held in China, that country presumed, “In China, you do as the Chinese do.” A shouting match, caught on video, broke out between a presidential press aide and a Chinese official. The man demanded that the journalists, who wanted to capture Obama’s arrival, not come anywhere near the president. When the aide explained that it was customary for U.S. journalists to accompany the American leader upon arrival to a foreign destination and film the proceedings, the Chinese official appeared to get rather worked up, and shouted, “This is our country! This is our airport!”
Is this Xi’s order? Or simply, the action of rogue Chinese officials?
This is not the first time Chinese guards have been unfriendly to U.S. aides who were meeting with high-level Chinese officials. One U.S. aide told me that she was pushed outside the locked door during a meeting a few years ago.
How to interpret China’s actions
You might consider China’s actions rude. The fact is, China is paranoid towards outside media, period. It might be one of the most powerful countries in the world, but its desire to hide its weaknesses and flaws is insurmountable. Its repeated argument is that one cannot compare China to the West. Chinese people are not ready for democracy and transparency.
When Xi was in Seattle, the Chinese media were allowed to surround Xi with television cameras from the moment he landed on U.S. soil, strolling the red carpet, while blocking U.S. media from going near. The Chinese required the U.S. media to be confined to a faraway stand (claiming security reasons). My friends sent me photos of me greeting Xi on the red carpet. They were not taken by my friends, but by China’s CCTV, who were two feet away from Xi and his wife. And it was a big group of Chinese journalists, not just one or two people, blocking American photographers from taking good close-up photos of China’s first couple. No U.S. media made a big deal about the unfair treatment. What the United States didn’t expect was China not reciprocating when Obama went to China. In reality, it was a snub to Obama. However, Obama was gracious about it, not wanting to distract from his agenda.
American television stations broadcast several positive stories of Xi’s activities in Washington state and D.C. last year. Coverage of Obama’s visit to China would be minimal, aside from the few group photos with other world leaders. Every story will have a Chinese angle, since most Chinese media outlets are state-owned.
China wants to control all the media coverage on the summit. But the shouting match that nearly escalated into a fight between a Chinese official and American aide reflects badly on Xi, since he is the leader of the host country. China paid over 2 million residents of Hangzhou to leave the city and take a vacation during the G20 summit to reduce traffic congestion and enhance security.
Money, it now appears, may not have been well spent for China, seeing that the initial headlines around the world, about the G20, were negative.
A lesson from Chinese history
Around 500 B.C. in Chinese history of the Warring States period, Yen Ying, an ambassador of Chai, was visiting Chu state. Yen was a short man with sharp wits. Chu’s guards tried to humiliate Yen and refused to let him enter through the main door.
Instead, guards asked Yen to crawl through a small door for dogs.
“I am not the ambassador to visit a dog’s country,” said Yen, implying that if Chu forced him to use the small door, Chu would admit that it was indeed a dog country.
Unwillingly, the guards let Yen in through the main door, after consulting their king.
Next time, the United States needs to deploy shrewd and crafty Mandarin-speaking envoys, with the ability to exercise humor on their feet like Yen Ying, to defuse tension and problem-solve.
As for those Chinese security guards, they simply follow orders from someone who is incapable of understanding the true meaning of diplomacy and being diplomatic.
Shame, shame, shame on both sides!
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.