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November 19, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright November 19, 2009 Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Used by permission.


Barack Obama spent fewer than three days in China, but his first trip there has been a week-long story in the news world, as countless journalists, academics, and pundits have shared their thoughts about what this visit could do for U.S.-China relations. Now that the president has left the PRC, how did it all go? Obama Administration officials are speaking highly of it, claiming that Obama was forceful in private meetings with Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese leadership. And perhaps the devil is in the details, as political scientist David Shambaugh says, speaking favorably of the joint statement of cooperation that Obama and Hu issued on Tuesday, which he thinks sets a positive tone for future Sino-U.S. relations.

However, most of us weren’t privy to the Obama-Hu conversations, and my reading of the joint statement is somewhat more pessimistic than Shambaugh’s. On the whole, I’d say that Obama’s trip was anti-climactic, and even a bit disappointing. While most commentators didn’t really expect that Obama would accomplish all that much during his time in China, a survey of what happened on the trip, and what’s been written about it, reinforces the general sense among China watchers that very little got done. Below, a review of Obama-in-China, both the trip itself and the discussion surrounding it:

The Good:

1. The town hall meeting in Shanghai took place on Monday as planned. At one point last week, we were hearing stories that both American and Chinese officials had reservations about the event, and there were rumors that it might be canceled due to conflicts over who could attend and whether or not the meeting would be broadcast in China. Thanks to what I assume was a weekend full of closed-door negotiations, the town hall went ahead as scheduled. If it hadn’t, Obama’s trip would have been even less interesting — and both sides would have appeared unwilling to cooperate with the other. As for Obama’s performance in the town hall meeting itself . . . well, see below for more, under “The Bad.”

2. My Google Reader has been full of great writing this week. A trip like Obama’s generates a lot of press, and those of us in the China field have been feasting on it. A few of the pieces I like the most are Isabel Hilton, on internet censorship in China (hat tip to China Digital Times); Paul French, comparing Obama’s arrival in Shanghai to that of Ulysses S. Grant when he visited China in the late 1870s; and all of the short takes that Evan Osnos has posted at his New Yorker blog. Yale Global Online has two thoughtful pieces about Obama in Asia, and there are some interesting essays at The Daily Beast — one by Peter Beinart on the shifting U.S.-China dynamics that few people seem to have noticed, and another by Richard Wolffe summing up “Obama’s Bad Trip.”