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China not in a gift-giving mood

On issues such as Iran sanctions and currency rates, President Obama's hosts show no signs of budging.

November 18, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — When it came to China, President Obama's famous powers of persuasion failed to persuade.

He came bearing a long shopping list, including Chinese support for tougher sanctions on Iran and more flexibility by Beijing on currency exchange rates, but Obama was met with polite, yet stony, silences.

Only one more key meeting was scheduled for today before Obama's departure, a working lunch with Premier Wen Jiabao. Before flying to South Korea, the president will tour the Great Wall -- the famous symbol of Chinese tenacity and an appropriate backdrop for a visit in which China again showed its resistance to U.S. entreaties.

Not only is the U.S. president coming away without any definable concessions, but the Chinese appeared to be digging in their heels.

On Tuesday, just hours after Obama stood with President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People, praising China's commitment to "move toward a more market-oriented exchange rate over time," a senior Chinese official called a news conference across town to issue a rebuttal.

"We maintained a stable yuan during the financial crisis, which not only helped the global economy but also the stability of the world's financial markets," He Yafei, deputy foreign minister, said, adding that it was too soon since the worldwide financial crisis to talk about a change of strategy.

The Chinese official also slapped down Obama's call for more Internet freedom, saying that "we need to ensure that online communications do not affect our national security."

Perhaps most disappointing was China's failure to budge in its opposition to tougher sanctions on Iran. With their extensive oil interests influencing their policies toward Tehran, the Chinese are increasingly seen as an obstacle to reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But Obama had hoped that China would at least fall into step with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who publicly criticized Iran's intransigence during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit over the weekend in Singapore.

"I would not say that we got an answer today from the Chinese, nor did we expect one," said Jeffrey Bader, director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, briefing U.S. journalists after the meeting between the presidents. He acknowledged that the Chinese were less worried about Iran's nuclear program than about North Korea's.

During the news conference at the Great Hall of the People, where the presidents each read 15-minute statements outlining the highlights of the meetings as they perceived them, Hu conspicuously omitted mention of sanctions against Iran, saying only that there were differences on some issues.

After the ritual handshake and posing for photographs, the leaders left the podium -- refusing to answer questions from reporters, which is unusual for a news conference, even in China.

It was in keeping with the character of a presidential visit notable for its formality and lack of spontaneity. Every aspect of Obama's visit was carefully scripted, with the Chinese government taking pains to make sure nothing was left to chance. Obama did not meet with Chinese journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates, environmentalists or any ordinary Chinese, and an expected meeting with Hu Shuli, who recently resigned as editor of China's leading business magazine, did not materialize.

During Obama's "town hall" meeting in Shanghai on Monday, the 50 students selected to question him were mostly officers of the Communist Youth League. Wary that Obama might say something provocative, the Chinese government refused White House requests that the event be broadcast live on nationwide television. Instead, it was broadcast only on Shanghai television.

Coverage of Obama's visit was also subdued, with noticeably fewer stories in the Chinese newspapers and shorter television reports than during other presidential visits.

Obama's limited results in part reflect the profound shift in Sino-U.S. relations and global politics, with China's rapid rise and America's weakened position, especially in the wake of the financial crisis.

"It used to be the U.S. could go around and say 'Do this and do that' because they had so much leverage," said Dali Yang, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. "Today, the U.S. can't do that."

Ding Xinghao, president of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, said Obama did not seem to connect with the Chinese as well as did former President Clinton. He recalled a 1998 nationally televised question-and-answer session with students at Peking University. "That was an amazing event. . . . Clinton looked the students in the eye and answered very hard questions," Ding said. "Obama's performance in Shanghai was significant, but for me it couldn't compare."

Then again, as Ding noted, the novelty of a U.S. presidential visit has long since worn off.

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