Sima Nan Comments On Obama's China Trip

Here is Tish Durkin at The Week Magazine: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."  Who are these Chinese people?  What are their views?  The following is the translation of one (and only one) Chinese person, which does not (and cannot) represent all possible Chinese opinions in totality.  You don't have to agree with his views.  The interest is in what one (and only one) Chinese person might think from his perspective, and it may help to make you aware that your particular views may not be universally valid for everyone.

Background: Sima Nan Wikipedia

(  Sima Nan: Why didn't Obama talk about Shanghai Disney?  Twenty-one questions from the reporter.  November 19, 2009.

Q: Mr. Sima, you have expressed opinions about the Shanghai Disney project that are different from those of the relevant Shanghai authorities.  Your essay drew strong reactions on the Internet.  Our website has carried it as well.  According to rumors, Obama was supposed to express thanks to China for this Disney thing.  But Obama did not mention it at all during this trip.  Do you think that this has to do with your essay?

A: First of all, I do not think that an essay of mine could have such a large influence.

Secondly, the reasons for having Disney in Shanghai were really inadequate.  Since publishing my essay, I have not seen any formidable rebuttals.  I only saw some individual persons chant slogans against Sima Nan.

Thirdly, do you know that the images of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are in the process of being changed?  These dying brand images are being moved over to China for 43% of the shares in the project while the Chinese side has to put up more than 25 billion RMB in cash.  This is an unfair deal.  On this project, the people of Shanghai have not shown the intelligence and maturity as befits the Chinese city with the most commercial sense.

Fourthly, I don't think that Disney was a topic that Obama deemed worthy of discussion during this trip to China.  My personal observation is that it is Obama's style to indulge in exaggerations.

Q: Did you watch the dialogue between Obama and the young people of Shanghai?  What were your impressions?

A: First of all, I am very curious by the questions raised by those young people.  Their questions seemed like blunted versions of questions to government spokespersons.  Nobel Prize?  The secret to success?  Certain key questions that touch on basic interests were not asked.  In Obama's responses to these questions, someone people say that he was logically clear and reasonable.  But I am more inclined to think that he was evasive.  All American presidents including Barack Obama have gone through many elimination debate matches before they won.  The composure of Obama in responding to the questions from the young people reflects to the process of how he grew up.  Interestingly, there was a question about Internet supervision at the meeting, but the question came from the American ambassador in China and not any of the Shanghai young people.

I do not believe that the young people whom Obama met in Shanghai were randomly chosen people.  Therefore I cannot say how representative they were.  But it is for certain that if young people on the Internet like you can ask their own questions of Obama, those questions would not sound like little sheep baying -- too gentle, too polite and not enough vigor as befits young people.

Q: What is your understand of "strategic reassurance"?

A: "Strategic reassurance" is not "re-insurance."  Re-insurance is a specific arrangement in the insurance system.  When an insurance company fails, the re-insurance will guarantee your insurance provided that you have participated in a re-insurance plan.  The talk about "strategic reassurance" is just talk.  This is like Zoellick's "responsible stakeholder" idea.  These are all nice things that one say about others from one's position.  This is another way of saying strategic mutual trust.  There is less substance than word play here.  From this viewpoint, Americans seemed to be better in coming up with slogans and playing word games.

Q: What do you think about the idea of "cooperating partners in facing common challenges"?

A: It seems to be a convenience to say that we are partners when we have to face common challenges but not at other times.  This is like what people say about "when you need someone, you face them up front; when you don't need someone, you turn your back on them."  So when they need you, you are a partner; when they don't need you, you are not a partner.  This shows that China is still just a pawn on America's chessboard.  Rather than saying that this slogan has raised "strategic mutual trust" to new heights, it is more like another way of have something to say when "strategic mutual trust" could not be reached."  We are still at the stage of "unrealized strategic mutual trust."

When a person is struggling in the muddy water, he needs someone to rescue him.  To a certain degree, China is acting the role of that someone by providing food, water and blood.  Under these special circumstances, the drowning person emphasizes that we have a "partnership relationship in facing common challenges."  When a relationship is based upon exchange of interests which terminates when no interests are left to exchange instead of being based upon "righteousness," it will not endure.  Therefore, there is nothing endearing about this.

Q: Obama brought up the subject of universal values.  After the Wenchuan earthquake, you wrote essays to criticize two southern China newspapers for selling "dubious" universal values.  This caused a huge Internet debate over this issue.  At a time when that discussion is fading away inside China, Obama brings up universal values again.  What do you think?

A: This is not a theoretical problem, and Obama is not talking about a theoretical problem either.  Abstractly, if we say that men and women should be equal, old people should be looked after, children should have a kind and warm environment, people should have love amongst them ... if you say that these are the universal values, then all is fine.  Sima Nan won't object to them.  I don't think anyone in the world would oppose them either.

But let suppose that Mr. Obama's "universal values" contain an item about "human rights."  Within this "human rights" item, if it is only about American human rights to the exclusion of the human rights of the people of Iraq, or the people of Afghanistan, or the prisoners in the Guantanamo prison, then I am sorry to say that we have to put a question mark on these "universal values" because they are very suspect.

Let us suppose that Mr. Obama's "universal values" hides an item known as "democracy."  If this idea of democracy refers only to American style democracy to the exclusion of the Chinese form and practice of democracy and if this democracy is being exported by force around the world, then this democracy is equally suspect.

You ask me what I think about American president Mr. Obama's universal values.  Firstly, I emphasize that this is not a theoretical problem.  This is a practical problem.  Secondly, we don't only listen to what a person says.  It is more important to watch what he actually does.  Thirdly, underneath any linguistic narrative, the American linguist Noam Chomsky says that there is a "deep structure of linguistics" which is the "cultural structure of the national psychology."  If you naively believe that you can discuss "universal values" at face value, you are not qualified to discuss this issue.

Q: This joint Sino-American statement covered many areas.  There are more than 6,000 words that covered five sections.  "Strategic mutual trust" was emphasized repeatedly.  Are you satisfied with that?

A: This problem is not whether I am satisfied or not.  It goes without say that the joint statement is important.  I observed the dazzling verbal skills of the eloquent Mr. Obama.  He described the meeting with Hu Jintao as a "meeting of the minds" and gave the impression that "strategic mutual trust" has reached a very high level.  But he is evasive and he will not utter a single word that should not be said.

His statements about "universal values" and "partnership" are probably more directed towards his political opponents in America.  Meanwhile there has been no concrete progress in the issues that the Chinese are most concerned about.  For example, there is the issue of arms sales to Taiwan.  Obama did not promise to stop arm sales to Taiwan, even though he repeated that "the China policy will not change" in abstraction.  He did not promise to stop selling arms to Taiwan, and he did not promise that an anti-missile system won't be built in Taiwan.  Of course, there was no way that he would promise arms sales to China.

Another important issue was that before Obama came to China, there were several bad cases in which China was punished for dumping products in America.  When Obama became president, he must have signed the report from the Sino-American Trade Commission to punish China after careful consideration.  When he arrived in China, he acted as if nothing had happened and he said nothing about it.  He only abstractly spoke about his "opposition to trade protectionism."  This is risible.  On one hand, he took broad measures that damaged China's interests and practiced extreme trade protectionism.  On the other hand, he is declaring his opposition to trade protectionism.  Such is Obama.

Before Obama came to China, people were hoping that Obama will acknowledge on behalf of America that China is a market economy nation, because China has been a good student who keeps promises, accepts responsibility and obeys the rules.  But the joint statement did not say so, and Obama did not mention it in his speeches.  Mr. Obama does not think that this issue is worth a single word from him.

Q: Obama spoke about the Dalai Lama.

A: Yes, he spoke about him.  But he posed as an arbitrator between China and the splittist forces of the Dalai Lama.  He spoke from aloft downwards towards the two sides, not as their equals on the same level.  He spoke from above that he welcomes the Chinese government to re-open discussions with the Dalai Lama.  It is not as if there hadn't been any discussions before, but consensus was reached.  The reason why the Dalai Lama acted that way was that he was secure in the knowledge that he has backing.  It is clear where his backing comes from.

Q. What was the most astonishing thing about this Obama trip so far?

A: There two astonishing things for me.  One happened in Japan and the other in China.

In Japan, the angle at which Obama bowed to the Japanese Emperor was quite astonishing in the photo.  I don't believe that it was pre-planned.  A friend said that Obama bowed down impulsively at that moment.  Mr. Obama was brought up under the influence of Islam.  In terms of individual psychology, he is apt to bow down impulsively to certain authority figures imbued with mystical powers.  This seems to be understandable.  In America, Obama's bow was criticized by many media.  I don't have any critical opinions about that.  I was only astonished.

The second astonishing thing was that in the joint statement, Obama promised to send 100,000 American students to study in China over the next four years.  This figure astonished me.  More than twenty years ago, I worked at the People's Republic Ministry of Commerce Department of Education Higher Education Office to send students to study overseas.  The embarrassment at the time was something people at your age will find hard to understand.  At the time, the biggest problem was that we cannot find enough qualified people to send out.

Previously, there has been little or not discussion about exchanging students.  So I was not psychologically prepared to learn that America has promised to send such a large contingent of students over.

Q: Concerning the human rights issue, do you think that Obama has made enough of an issue?  Or did he give enough face to China?

A: Obama's human rights show is not performed for us to watch.  Obama's human rights show is performed for the American media and people.  On this issue, Obama made a feint and did not say much.  His explanation to the Americans was that this problem should be solved via discussions about American and Chinese human rights.  In other words, he has kicked the ball down the field.  He did not take a direct shot at the goal this time.  Obama made a wise decision.

Q: Obama said before the meeting that he hoped to have a "meeting of the minds" with China's leader.  What do you think about Obama's statement?  Do you believe that Obama is sincere?

A: These are any serious negotiations over political powers and national interests.  "A meeting of the minds" is more like something that that young literary women are apt to use.  It is hilarious to use this term in this situation.

Q: But Mr. Obama chose this term himself.  You think that it is hilarious?

A: It is even more hilarious for Obama to say it.  I cannot believe that he said something like that.  I think that maybe female audience may like these types of irreverent remarks.  When American presidents make decision, it does not depend on what his own preferences are and it does not depend on what the facts are.  Instead, it is often decided by the research findings of the team of psychologists working for the president's office.  Once these results say that the president should something, the president will say it.  This is politics by public opinion.  This is part of western democracy.  When the Chinese people watch western politicians perform, they have to adjust to their styles and their dishonest but sincere expressions.

Q: There were about 400 Chinese and foreign reports at the National People's Congress Hall waiting for Hu Jintao and Obama to attend the press conference.  The 40 minute meeting which was scheduled for 40 minutes went on for 80 minutes, leading to various speculations on the outside.  What do you think about this matter?

A: This is commonplace.  Obama can talk.  He can add another 20 minutes easily with this talk.  Hu Jintao represents the national interests of China and he has many, many issues that he needed to discuss with Mr. Obama.  There is nothing unusual about the meeting going over by 40 minutes.

Q: Obama talked most of all about climate change.  He emphasized that the world can solve the problem only if China and America worked responsibly together.  Do you think that he makes sense?

A: This is a serious issue.  America is concerned, China is concerned, the whole world is concerned.  But Obama's speech keeps evading one important matter of principle in the Kyoto Accord.  At the very least, he was off topic.  This made it impossible to obtain consensus.

An important principle of the Kyoto Protocol concerns the issue of global warming.  Developed nations and non-developed nations "have common as well as regional responsibilities."  Obama spoke only of the "common" but not the "regional."  He only said that China and America are both big emission producers.  Therefore, China and American must "act responsibly" together.  This is unfair.  You have been producing emissions for centuries while we have only been doing so for a few decades.  You are now a fat man with too much blood sugar, uric acid, purine, high blood pressure, etc.  You need to get on a diet regime.  But we are skinny people who have just begun eating.  We have eaten shredded pork in garlic sauce and kung po diced chicken for only a few days.  But you want us to swtich to a simple diet with no meat, eggs, milk or sugar.  This is illogical.

A more important reason is that a division of labor has occurred between China and United States.  The production processes all take place in China.  Therefore, it would seem that carbon emissions in China have been rapidly rising.  But the Americans are the one who make money and the Americans are the ones who benefited most.  A Barbie doll sells for USD 120 dollars in America.  The Americans keep USD 100, while the Chinese factory worker gets only USD 2 in blood-and-sweat money ... the production processes are taking place in China.  This unreasonable division of labor was based upon an unreasonable international division.  These requirements are unreasonable.  How can you make America and China bear the same level of responsibility?

Q: Recently, senior American officials including Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke are all talking about raising the value of the RMB.  Obama has also demanded it strongly.  What is your view on the matter?

A: Given that Chinese exports are actually declining, there are economists who may be against raising the value of the RMB.  But the decision on the valuation of the RMB should be decided by China based upon the situation inside China.  American love to coerce other people on these types of issues.  We don't like it when you force other people to do things.  The American dollar has been declining in value for the purpose of making the American dollar more competitive in the world market.  Why won't they increase the value of the American dollar?  Why do they want China to do it instead?  Once upon a time, the value of Japanese Yen was increased under heavy pressure from America, and Japan is still suffering from the consequences now.  I purchased a copy of Shintaro Ishihara's <The Japan That Can Say No> a few days ago.  The whole book was a complaint about how the American hegemony hurt the Japanese.  We must learn from this example.  Financially, Japan and East Asia (including South Korea) were seriously hurt by the Americans.  We must learn from this shocking piece of history.

Obama said that they are satisfied that the RMB is heading in the direction of floating rates.  We should be leery when Americans praise us this way.  Let us think about the worst moment of the financial crisis when the avalanche hit Wall Street.  If it were not for the case that the RMB was not freely floating and the marketization had not gone too far, China would have suffered unthinkable losses.  In the processing of dancing with the wolves, the RMB was not yet floating.  This incidentally protected us.  When I visited Xinjiang the last time, people there said to me: "Our Xinjiang milk has absolutely no melamine."  I asked them why?  The Xinjiang Science and Technology Division cadre gave me a very funny explanation: "We Xinjiang people are lousy at learning chemistry.  We have not learned how to use melamine before you got into trouble.  We are half a beat slower than in the inner regions ..."  With respect to marketizing the RMB, I would rather see China move slowly because we are uncertain and unprepared.  We don't want to see China being blown away for no reason.  During the Southeast Asian financial crisis, the RMB was able to withstand the pressure and maintain its value.  If the RMB gets into trouble, who is going to help us?  Even if someone wants to help us, China is too big.  Therefore, China does not have to fight to be a good student who is praised by the Americans.  The Americans do not have to act as teachers either.

Q: In the joint Sino-American statement, the leaders of both nations did not disguise their disagreements.  But both tried to bring those disagreements to the lowest possible level.  Is this a phenomenon that is worth celebrating?

A: Of course, this deserves to be celebrated.  It shows that the American president Obama is taking a pragmatic approach towards China and Asia.  He recognizes and he has to deal with the power of China.  He has to value the basic interests of the Chinese people.  I appreciate most of all the repeated emphases by our leader Hu Jintao that Americans cannot breach the bottom line of the core interests of China.

Q: Some observers say that Obama was too servile to the will of China during this trip.  What do you think?

A: Those are the partial views of certain media.  These types of partial views are built upon the usual condescending views about China that were left over from the Cold War Era.

Let us make this clear.  This is a case where America needs China.  It is not case that only the Chinese needs America.  This is no unilateral gift from America to China.  If China did not supply blood to America, it would be very hard for America to remain where it is today.  Just when someone who is seeking help almost achieves equal status with the person from whom he is seeking help, someone comes out and talk nonsense.  Isn't that risible?  The people who need to reflect are those who are talking this nonsense.  They need to get rid of their cold war mentality and their historical sense of superiority.

Q: Obama visited the Forbidden Palace for one hour.  It was said that he did not wear a suit.  Instead, he wore a sweater and a brown jacket, with both hands in the pockets.  Someone said that this was the most relaxed moment for Obama in China.  Are you interested in this piece of minutiae?  How do you look at Obama's trip to the Forbidden Palace?

A: He was getting a moment to relax during his hectic schedule.  When people arrives at a new place, they often likely to find a most worthwhile place to visit.  Obama is no different as other ordinary travelers.  It takes more than a hour to cover the magnificent Chinese palaces and several hundred years of civilization.  Obama clearly realized that.  Therefore, he said that he will return with the First Lady.

Q. Are there any unexpected details in Obama's trip to China?

A: Detail 1: Shanghai city party secretary Yu Zhengsheng met with Obama but did not see him off.  Detail 2: Obama visited the Forbidden City only in the company of the Forbidden City leaders and no other central government leaders.  These were all somewhat hard to understand.

Q. Compared to president George W. Bush and president George H.W. Bush, Obama kept the lowest profile.  Many people made the same assessment.  Do you agree?

A: In terms of making nice speeches, that may be understandable.  But when mature people look at problems, they won't just listen to what people say.  The Chinese people go by "listening to what they say and watching what they do."  The Chinese people will never be taken in by people who indulge in exaggerations.  The great leader of the Chinese people, Mao Zedong, named his two daughters Li Min and Li Na.  This came from Confucius saying Ӥ_纳_ (A gentleman would speak less but be quick to do more).  This means that we care more about action.

When George W. Bush first became president, he talked wildly and was unfriendly towards China.  At the end of his second term, he was the friendliest ever president towards China.  When president Clinton took office, he said a lot of nice things about Sino-American relationships.  But it was all empty talk.  It was during his term that American cruise missiles hit the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia.

American politics is very different from the kind of politics that Chinese people normally understand.

If I remember incorrectly, for the sake of a few more votes in 1992, President George H.W. Bush sold 150 F16 fighters to Taiwan in a challenge to the basic interests of the Chinese people.  Therefore, it is premature to decide that someone is a good person after he shakes your hand, hugs you and says some nice things.  We need to "listen to what he says and watch what he does."  We have to carefully separate what he "will" do from what he "can" do.  We must not assume that American presidents mean what they say.  Actually American presidents often don't keep their promises, because they are constrained by the votes, or the opposition party, or the capitalist groups which actually decide the fate of America.

Q. Before Obama came to China, there were many speculations about the present that he will give to the Chinese leader.  But nobody expected that Obama would give a Chinese Go chess set to Hu Jintao.  Do you think that this has a symbolic meaning?

A: In the big chess game of diplomacy between China and America, it is understandable for the media to be chasing these types of small details in order to dress up their reports.  But it is often risible to derive forced interpretations out of these minor details.

Obama clearly gave it some thought.  Firstly, Go chess originated from China.  Secondly, Go chess is popular around the world.  Thirdly, in Go chess, the two sides are equal, open and transparent.  If these three conditions are put on the negotiation table, both sides will accept.  Obama gave someone a present in order to please him.  My third explanation may be far-stretched, but let it be my interpretation of the event.

Q. Do you think that Obama can be a model for Chinese youth to learn from?  Do you think that Obama draws curiosity and concern like entertainment stars among Chinese young people?

A: In my previous article, I wrote that "Obama is not a dark horse."  Richard Nixon was the dark horse, because he came quietly to China and talked philosophy with Mao Zedong in Zhongnanhai.  Afterwards Sino-American relationship underwent a profound change that shook the world.  When Obama came, he could not do much.  People can see that his maximum and minimum limits are restricted by certain factors.  People had hopes, but nothing unexpected was going to happen.

Obama is not the dark horse.  Obama is not Michael Jackson.  He is not a superstar.  When he came to China, the Chinese young people (at least the post-80's, the post-90-'s and even the post-70's generation people that I had contact with) were not too excited.  I read some of the entries in the "What questions would you ask Obama?" page on the Internet.  I found Chinese young people to very quite rational.

Your AC's website's "Youth of April" is even more rational and aware.  I noticed that when your CEO Mr. Rao Jin was interviewed by the New York Times, BBC, Associated Press and other western, he is level-headed and knowledgeable on the questions about Obama's China trip.  I think that these responses are a different kind of representative voices.  In these responses, the post-80's and post-90's youth show mature thinking on the major questions which affect the interests of the Chinese people.

Obama is the leader of the United States of America.  He is not the leader of the world.  Obama came here on behalf of the core interests of the United States of America.  People pay attention to him because he is a political figure.  Political figures are not moral paragons, and they do not have the artistic talents of Michael Jackson.  What young people have are rational concern and thinking.  There won't be the kind to celebrity mania that certain western media are predicting.

Q. Obama spoke especially about the common interests of the two countries in detail.  He said: "I do not believe that the success of one country can only occur at the expense of another country."  This sentence has let many commentators to say that Obama has formally accepted the peaceful rise of China.  This is the response to the emphasis on "peaceful rise" that China has been making over the years.  Is this true?

A: If I had to choose something that I approve in everything that Obama said, this would be the sentence.  This sentence is really relatively important.  It shows the reluctant acceptance of the unstoppable rise of China by American politicians.

But the realization of this awareness has to be supported in action.

For example, stopping the support of the Taiwan independence forces and the splittist forces of the Dalai Lama.  For example, stopping the support for the Xinjiang independence forces.  For example, not sending airplanes and submarines near China's front door to conduct surveillance.  For example, not putting too many restrictions on selling products to China ... empty talk is useless.

The American trade deficit with respect to China occurred because the Americans are unwilling to sell high-tech products to China, especially with respect to space aviation, automobiles, computers, machine control beds, etc and of course no military weapons.  If President Obama really believed that the "rise of one country does not have to come at the price of hurting another country," there should be fewer restrictions on Sino-American trade.  If America does not set up so many trade restrictions against China, China will get the chance to import American high-tech products and reverse the deficit.  But Americans are not willing to do so.  An abstract affirmation does not help.  At the very most, you earn a "good attitude" reputation; at the very worst, you earn an "all talk but no action" reputation.

I do not believe that things will change just because Obama uttered that sentence.  But saying it is better than not saying it.  We should mainly be commending Obama.

It is easy to talk; it is hard to do.  Americans are enthusiastic about selling their agricultural products to China.  The agricultural products that they sell receive high government subsidies.  Secondly, they have been genetically modified (which is restricted for sale in the European Union).  Thirdly, they are applying pressure on China.  They want badly to ruin the agricultural industry in China (such as eradicating the wild soy beans in Heilongjiang).

Q. Do you agree that there exist "broad common interests" between the two countries?  To realize those common interests requires close cooperation between the two countries.  Does China need to assume greater responsibility?

A: Of course that must be the case.  The world has reached an era in which we share in all the glories and losses.  That was why Chairman Hu Jintao emphasized "resolute opposition to trade protectionism."  He emphasized repeatedly that the Sino-American problems needs to be considered "from the long-term and broad perspective."

But even when the Americans emphasize on common interests, they also emphasize "joint responsibility."  The message behind this is different: On one hand, they had to acknowledge the power of China.  On the other hand, buried inside of these praises, there is a different meaning -- they want to shove the burden on you.  "Alright, brother!"  "You are awesome!"  "Come on, big boy!" ... China has become a big man only recently.  We need to keep our heads cool.  We cannot be so gullible.  We will not suffer quietly.  On the issues of hot gas emission and climate change, there is no justification for us to assume equal responsibility as America.