About face

China is declaring the G20 economic summit, held in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, a resounding success. But in the aftermath of the confab, it’s not easy to specify what, exactly, was achieved.

The positives: There were no public protests. The US and China renewed old vows to curb greenhouse gases. China’s president Xi Jinping and Japan’s prime minister Shintaro Abe managed to scowl a little less than usual while posing for photos after their bilateral meeting. The final communique refrained from singling out China for flooding global markets with low-cost steel.

For the most part, though, the gathering seemed to reinforce, at least for observers outside China, the impression that this year’s host country is a tense and uptight place. Security arrangements were downright spooky. The local government declared a week-long public holiday, offered generous vacation subsidies and employed a host of non-voluntary measures to get more than a third of Hangzhou’s residents to leave town during the proceedings. Foreign journalists marveled at China’s ability to “transform a usually bustling metropolis of 6 million inhabitants into a virtual ghost town to guarantee a trouble-free summit” and were left trudging about the abandoned metropolis in a vain search for locals to be interviewed.

The event’s biggest story was “stairgate,” the controversy that erupted after US President Barack Obama exited Air Force One via the underside of the aircraft rather than descending stairs from the higher door as is customary when he visits other heads of state. There was a nasty shouting match between members of the White House press corps and Chinese security officials on the tarmac. US media jumped to the conclusion that China had “snubbed” the Obama by denying him the pomp and circumstance of a proper arrival.  Chinese diplomats told the South China Morning Post it was the fault of the Americans for insisting on an English-speaking driver for the vehicle that transported the stairs. A series of follow-up stories suggested the fracas wasn’t a deliberate attempt to embarrass Obama but a needless mix-up created by over-zealous public security forces. (For what it’s worth, my own experience as a correspondent during postings in Shanghai and Beijing was that bureaucrats in security agencies are more powerful and far more numerous than counterparts in the foreign service, and accustomed to operating without regard for diplomatic policy objectives.)

Back in the US, Donald Trump seized on the incident as proof the Chinese don’t respect Obama and insisted that if it that had happened to him, he’d have immediately ordered wheels up and flown back home. Obama, characteristically, shrugged it off, telling members of the US press corps “I wouldn’t overcrank the significance of it.”

But that dismissal is deceiving. Issues of status have begun to loom dangerously large in the US – China relationship. If leaders of the world’s two largest economies can’t agree on which stairs to use when they visit each other, what hope is there for collaboration on issues like climate change, pollution, trade, freedom of the seas or cyber-security? Even on matters where they both share a common interest, increasingly discussions between Beijing and Washington seem to pay little heed to facts and substance and are instead all about face.



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