Friday, April 21, 2006

Insulting China: The Politics of Gesture and Globalization with Chinese Characteristics

The recent visit of China's president, Hu Jintao, to the United States, was marked by lots of talk and ceremony. The Americans, including the American press, like most Western cultural and news organs, covered the supposed substance of the visit--progress on issues of interest to the United States (trade, Iran, human rights) and China (Taiwan, trade). For the Americans, it was somewhat humorous to report two gaffes in the visit. The first was the unfortunate reference to the playing of the anthem of the People's Republic as that of the Republic of China (a clear reference to Taiwan). The second, was the even more unfortunate inability to appropriately screen the guests at the White House welcome ceremonies for the Chinese President as a result of which a member of Falun Gong managed to gain entry to the ceremonies and heckle the President Hu Jintao and publicly challenge the Chinese President's human rights record (which, of course, from a Western perspective is fair game).

For the American media, these incidents merited little more than a bemused coverage. The television media delighted in airing both events, if only for the purpose of showing that this Administration is sloppy, or careless, or less than optimally competent. That message was meant to be used in the internal battle for the authoritative ground in the debate over the American policy in Iraq (to some extent in any case). The American political class ignored both gaffes. They were after 'substance.' Only an article written by Joseph Kahn for the New York Times ("In Hu's Visit to the U.S., Small Gaffes May Overshadow Smaller Gains") appearing carefully balanced between obscurity and prominence in the center of the first section of the Saturday (April 22) edition appeared to appreciate the importance of these incidents.

My guess is that the Chinese viewed these events in a very different light. For the Chinese, I might imagine that the gaffes were the most meaningful part of the trip. For the Chinese, symbol, rather than substance, can be the most important part of state visits. Technocrats and specialists are meant to actually produce the work that is then authenticated by the head of government. Visits of heads of state are meant as gestures symbolic of the substance to follow (or that precedes it). Every act capable of symbolic meaning is assessed for the information it conveys with respect to substance, personal relationships and mutual standing between the parties. In this context, it would be difficult to convince the Chinese that everything done during a state visit was not deliberate.

And who could blame the Chinese for cultivating that belief in this case? Both incidents exposed the president of the People's Republic to very pointed humiliation at very public times--indeed at times when protocol made it difficult for him to react. They were pointed in very politically sensitive ways--the anthem 'error' mocked the Chinese stance on Taiwan. The 'journalist' error provided a way for the Administration to rebuke the Chinese President about China's human rights record indirectly. Neither error was plausible as error. There is little room to believe that the difference between "People's Republic" and "Republic of," well known since 1949, was lost on the translator responsible for announcing the playing of the anthem. There is even less plausibility in the excuse about the 'infiltrator' to the welcoming ceremonies. The Bush Administration has prided itself since the September 11th terror attacks on keeping all undesirables away from the President. The White House is virtually impossible to penetrate. Even the President's meetings with 'the people' are as carefully vetted as any event in old Stalinist regimes to permit only friends of the regime to attend. All of this is well known and often reported. In this context, it is difficult to believe that someone might have been able to slip in past security 'under the radar.'

Not that the Chinese should have much cause to be surprised. And it is possible that they might have thought they had it coming. From their perspective, the Chinese President delivered a wonderfully significant insult to the American political establishment in general--and the sitting American President in particular--by arranging a visit with the head of Microsoft, a powerful transnational business enterprise, ahead of his meetings in Washington. If so, then the 'gaffes' were the price the Chinese had to pay in a way that mattered most to a symbol-conscious regime. Because the Chinese state apparatus also never does anything without careful deliberation, then the Americans might have been right to repay insult with insult.

But perhaps, multinational enterprises are more important to the Chinese than the American political establishment. If, indeed, global corporations have now assumed a fairly independent power to further global integration through their economic operations (all with substantive effects--to be sure), then it seems appropriate that the Chinese President arrange a state visit to a source of that power, every bit as important as the visit to the political power from which the economic power operates. For a sense of that power, see, Backer, Larry Catá, The Autonomous Global Enterprise: On the Role of Organizational Law Beyond Asset Partitioning and Legal Personality, Tulsa Law Journal, Vol 41, 2006.

If this is the case, it might to possible to assume that no insult was intended directly, but a powerful message was meant to be conveyed. For the Chinese, it may be more important to arrange harmonious relations with the sources of American economic power than it is to develop any sort of deep relationship with the sources of American political power. Indeed, given the great power of economic determinism in Chinese political philosophy, it may make more sense to treat the great American multinational corporation as a political entity than it is to treat the American political establishment as critical to global economic development.

Thus, for the Chinese, the American state may be less relevant than American corporations. This is an important message for the United States. Yet that message seems to be lost on political Washington, to its long-term policy making detriment. Though that is hardly surprising given context in which Washington looks out on the world. See Backer, Larry Catá, Economic Globalization Ascendant: Four Perspectives on the Emerging Ideology of the State in the New Global Order, University of California, Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2006

I do not mean to suggest that it should be American policy never to insult (or confront) a visiting head of state. Quite to the contrary, such symbolic actions can sometimes pay big dividends. I do mean to suggest that American policy makers should not be so arrogant--or so clumsy--that they lose control of this valuable tool. To insult the Chinese president because we meant to (whether that course would have been wise or not is another story) is one thing; to insult the Chinese President because we were careless is quite another.

In either case, those actions will affect our relationships with the Chinese for a while. Watch what happens in Cuba and Iran as the Chinese contemplate payback. Consider the extent of Chinese intransigence on Dafur (to protect its oil interests with Sudan) when you hear about the improving relationship between the United States and the People's Republic. More important still, watch what happens as the Chinese state bypasses American political institutions as it forges relationships with key American players in the global economy. At a minimum, the actions, or clumsiness, of the current Administration provides all the symbolic reasons China needs to support its policy of democratization with Chinese characteristics. I will look forward to interpreting the meaning of the 'gaffes' offered to our officials on their next state visit to China.

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