Page 1 of 2 For Hu, style is the substance
By Peter Lee
China's President Hu Jintao's four-day state visit to the United States that
ended on Friday has unleashed an avalanche of empty verbiage, courtesy of the
two governments, their media enablers, the punditocracy, and the blogosphere.
The trip, a victory lap for Hu prior to his retirement next year, appears
essentially devoid of significant accomplishments or developments, unless you
are a stockholder in Boeing (and can celebrate a US$19 billion payday
occasioned partially, if not completely, by China's desire to facilitate the
visit with some feel-good tangibles for President Barack Obama and China's
friends in American big business).
Thankfully, a few useful observations can be extracted from the
rhetoric and visuals surrounding the visit.
First, 2011 is not 2006.
In 2006, the occasion of Hu's previous visit, George W Bush was still riding
high in the early years of his second term. The "war on terror", with a few
bumps, was rolling along and doing in the surviving members of the "axis of
evil" - North Korea and Iran - was at the top of the foreign policy agenda
after the third member, Iraq, had already been dealt with. Confronting China -
long a preoccupation of vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney -
to moderate its support of North Korea and Iran was an important priority. 
In April 2006, when Hu visited, the US campaign to financially isolate and
destabilize North Korea - initiated with the Treasury finding that Macau's
Banco Delta Asia (BDA) was a "financial institution of money laundering
concern" and toppled it into insolvency - was in full swing.
And China was feeling the heat.
As the architect of the effort, David Asher, subsequently testified to the US
congress, the objective of the BDA designation was an aggressive effort to
"kill the chicken in order to scare the monkey", that is, intimidate China into
actively participating in the financial blockade of North Korea by threatening
its own institutions such as the People's Bank of China with a BDA-type
designation if it continued its dealings with the Pyongyang regime.
The campaign, led by Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial
intelligence Stuart Levey, was global in reach and reportedly successful enough
to force some Chinese banks into cutting banking ties with North Korea.
However, the US did not succeed in getting the Chinese government to change its
North Korea policy or even abandon its support for BDA. 
China's role as an impediment to Bush administration policies did not make for
a particularly hospitable environment for Hu's visit.
As Dana Milbank reported at the time:
The protocol-obsessed Chinese
leader suffered a day full of indignities - some intentional, others just
careless. The visit began with a slight when the official announcer said the
band would play the "national anthem of the Republic of China" - the official
name of Taiwan. It continued when Vice President Cheney donned sunglasses for
the ceremony, and again when Hu, attempting to leave the stage via the wrong
staircase, was yanked back by his jacket. Hu looked down at his sleeve to see
the president of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant
Then there were the intentional slights. China wanted a formal state visit such
as Jiang [Zemin] got, but the administration refused, calling it instead an
"official" visit. Bush acquiesced to the 21-gun salute but insisted on a
luncheon instead of a formal dinner, in the East Room instead of the State
Dining Room. Even the visiting country's flags were missing from the lampposts
near the White House. 
In addition to his sunglass-donning
transgression, Cheney also had to deny he had marked Hu's Oval Office briefing
by taking a nap in his chair (thereby, perhaps inadvertently, leaving the
impression that he had actually chosen to feign sleep in order to show his
contempt for the red supremo).
The capper to the disastrous visit was the outburst of Dr Wang Wenyi,
Falungong's point person on the issue of vivisection and organ harvesting
allegedly inflicted on Falungong practitioners by the Chinese government.
Despite having been denied press credentials by Maltese security during a
previous overseas trip of Hu's, somehow Wang was able to evade the scrutiny of
the White House press office and acquire a one-day credential for Hu's visit as
the press rep of Falungong's Epoch Times.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that somebody in the press office
thought it might be a fun prank to throw Hu together with a Falungong activist.
In 2006, the Secret Service did not cover itself in glory, either, as Milbank
90 seconds into Hu's speech on the South Lawn, the woman
started shrieking, "President Hu, your days are numbered!" and "President Bush,
stop him from killing!"
Bush and Hu looked up, stunned. It took so long to silence her - a full three
minutes - that Bush aides began to wonder if the Secret Service's strategy was
to let her scream herself hoarse. The rattled Chinese president haltingly
attempted to continue his speech and television coverage went to split screen.
Fast-forward to 2011.
China is perhaps the second-largest economy in the world, has weathered the
"great recession" nicely, and has sufficient cash and clout for Hu to avoid
being treated like a punk dictator on this trip.
Hu received the full state visit treatment from Obama, including not one but
two dinners with the president. He was also treated nicely by Vice President
Joe Biden, who greeted him at Andrews Air Force Base with the red carpet and a
military color guard.
During the joint press conference, Hu was heckled by demonstrators across the
street but nobody arose from the press gaggle to scream at him. (Nevertheless,
China cautiously blacked out the CNN live feed of the press conference, leading
to a predictable spate of "Commies Can't Handle the Truth" news reports and
Tough talk on Chinese currency and human rights issues and Beijing's irritating
habit of supporting North Korea and Iran was carefully modulated, with both
leaders performing a predictable and rather tedious tango for the benefit of
Therefore, in the area of visuals, China got what it wanted: acknowledgment,
not necessarily of its status as a burgeoning regional power, but of its role
as an important US interlocutor.
Hu's visit puts China on a par with US strategic allies India (state visit by
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, November 2009) , and the Republic of Korea
(state visit by President Lee Myung-bak, June 2010), while nosing out Japan
(which, presumably as punishment for its political dysfunction and inability to
toe the US line on relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Base on Okinawa, has
been forced to content itself with a non-state official visit by Prime Minister
Naoto Kan, September 2010).
Being recognized as a nation that the United States talks to, instead of one
that the United States talks at, is an important goal of Chinese foreign
In the warm glow of self-regard occasioned by the election of Obama, who has
restored US foreign policy to a posture of engagement, negotiation and
multilateralism, US observers often dismiss the Bush years of unilateral and
coercive anti-diplomacy as an irrelevant aberration.
China, it is safe to say, has not, and can remember times when US military,
diplomatic and economic might was concentrated against nations whose political
system, economic leverage and desire for an independent foreign policy made
them appear a threat.