By the short stairs

True to his nickname, “No Drama Obama,” the American president wants it known that he took no umbrage at the fact that there was no stairway waiting to help him descend from Air Force One last week when he landed in Hangzhou. But he’s a little miffed that critics have seized on that incident as symbolic of tensions in the US-China relationship.

New York Times correspondent Mark Landler detected a “sarcastic edge” in Obama’s reply to questions from the White House press corps in Luang Prabang, the last stop of what surely will be Obama’s final visit to the region as president. Obama seemed especially peeved by suggestions that “stair-gate” proves his administration’s much-touted “pivot” to Asia is a flop.

“If this theory about my reception and my rebalance policy is based on me going down the short stairs in China, yes, I think that is overblown,” Obama said. “Any reasonable person, certainly any person in the region, would be puzzled as to how this became somehow indicative of the work that we’ve done here.”

Well, reasonable people can disagree. And sometimes even unreasonable people offer compelling arguments. In this case, Charles Krauthammer (with whom I rarely agree on anything) raises an excellent point. In a recent Washington Post column he observes that no nation pays more attention to matters of diplomatic protocol than China.  China’s leaders, says Krauthammer, are “masters of every tributary gesture, every nuance of hierarchical ritual. In a land so exquisitely sensitive to protocol, rolling staircases don’t just disappear at arrival ceremonies.”

Yes, Krauthammer is a conservative pundit with a political axe to grind. But he makes a case with which few foreign China experts–regardless of their partisan affiliations–would disagree. Continue reading “By the short stairs”

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. Continue reading “About face”

In Asia’s World City, a push for “localism”

Hong Kong is days away from legislative elections that are unlikely to alter the city’s political power balance but certain to highlight residents’ alienation from their mainland overseers.

I have an essay titled “China’s Hong Kong Dilemma” in the current issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek in which I ponder the curious rise of Hong Kong’s “independence” movement. In fairness, to call this group a “movement” probably overstates its significance. There is zero chance China’s leaders will permit Hong Kong, which the mainland reclaimed from Britain in 1997, to break away and set itself up as some sort of separate, sovereign entity. Hong Kong relies on China for 70% of its water, most of its food and half its trade. For good measure, Beijing keeps 6,000 People’s Liberation Army troops garrisoned here.

Pro-independence leaders are a fractious and quixotic bunch–nearly all of them idealistic twenty-somethings, fresh from university. To date, their rallies have drawn crowds of no more than a few thousand. But, as with protests here two years ago, a heavy-handed response by Hong Kong’s mainland-controlled government has succeeded in transforming a loose collection of fringe dissenters into high-profile political heroes. Continue reading “In Asia’s World City, a push for “localism””

Xi’s Hangzhou agenda

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While President Xi remains huddled with China’s top leaders in Beidaihe for the Communist Party’s summer retreat, in Beijing senior officials have begun trying to shape the agenda for next month’s G20 summit in China’s eastern city of Hangzhou. On Monday, public comments by two senior government ministers stressed that as this year’s host Xi wants to focus on the subject of global economic growth.

Vice Finance Minister Zhu Gungyao emphasized the need for the G20 to reaffirm the importance of global trade and investment and deplore protectionism: “We really do need to make sure that the people, the public, benefit from economic development and growth,” Zhu said. “If people don’t feel like they are beneficiaries of economic development, if they don’t think their lot in life is improving, that’s when they start getting all kinds of ideas.” (Ideas? Like voting for Donald Trump, perhaps? Or withdrawing from the European Union?)

Meanwhile, China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Li Baodong, said leaders at the Sept 4-5 meeting shouldn’t get sidetracked by issues unrelated to economics–for example, competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. “The G-20 summit in Hangzhou is about the economy,” he said. “The consensus is to focus on economic development and not be distracted by other parties.”

Sticking to economics is usually a safe bet at global gatherings. But this year, it might actually court discord. After all, growth isn’t necessarily a subject that plays to China’s strengths these days. Continue reading “Xi’s Hangzhou agenda”