Ever since Richard Nixon visited China in winter 1972—an event timed to play into that year’s presidential elections—American presidents have made the pilgrimage to the modern version of the Forbidden City.
Landing in Shanghai on Sunday evening, President Obama has two days of meetings with the Chinese leadership, not to mention a town hall event with Chinese students (as if they were eligible to vote in a New Hampshire primary).
As a stage-set for photo opportunities, China is hard to beat. American presidents can walk the Great Wall, toast a nation in the Great Hall of the People, tower over diminutive Chinese leaders dressed in gray Mao suits, and make sweeping statements about new world orders.
For their part, the Chinese leadership loves nothing more than the chance to block traffic around Tiananmen Square, call out the drill corps, shoot off some fireworks, and release photographs of summit meetings, which then become the fodder of endless Sinologist conferences to try to figure out who has power in China and who is in line for a little “self-criticism.”
When President Nixon went to China, his only political goal—other than to show up—was to reach agreement on a joint communiqué that was drafted to avoid all the contentious issues of U.S.-Chinese relations, such as the war in Vietnam or U.S. support for Taiwan.
While aides haggled over the text of the equivocatory statement, Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, met with Mao, whose health was failing and who had to be propped up in a chair, as if part of a Disney World – Epcot diorama on the Long March.
For reasons of domestic political consumption, Nixon and Kissinger needed Mao as much as he needed them to help fend off Russian threats along the Amur River and to nudge China into a broader world.
They left the meeting and China gushing about how Mao had political magnetism, a great sense of humor, and the vision of a wise emperor, although he probably said little more than one of his gift pandas.
That Mao’s Cultural Revolution had killed millions mattered little more than the American wars in Korea and Vietnam or that Nixon himself had devoted his political career to China’s political isolation.
All that mattered was that the world would get the impression of Sino-American harmony—whatever the underlying reality—and that tea-like ceremony is how every subsequent summit meeting has been choreographed.
For a while, after the Nixon visit, American presidents thought it was good politics to preface a China visit with strong words of U.S. support for Taiwan, which has always played well as a plucky anti-communist billboard.
Even as the presidential administrations of Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush II were turning toward the economic riches of the East, and Taiwan was relegated to a diplomatic sideshow, the warm-up footage to any Chinese summit had to include a few profiles of Chiang Kai-shek or Free Tibet as popular icons of freedom.
After the 1989 massacres at Tiananmen Square, no American president could get close to Chinese airspace without finger waggling China for its abysmal record on human rights.
So as not to be seen kissing the rings of communist autocrats, the American president would “bring up” the name of an imprisoned dissident, just so that it was clear that the United States did not place Wal-Mart’s inventory ahead of personal freedoms. Only later in the trips did anyone take out an order form.
The problem for President Obama on this trip to China is that he arrives with the aura of someone late on his VISA card payments but still talking up his next trillion-dollar vacation.
In this analogy, China’s leadership is best understood as a bunch of repo men nervous about the penalty interest, although, to be fair, in the last ten years, the economic miracles of both the United States and China have been founded on illusions.
China accumulated its huge foreign trade surpluses based on an artificially low currency and the sweatshop wages paid to its workers. By contrast, the United States has thrived on debt funded from its reserve currency, and the cheap goods its can buy from overseas.
In the middle of both pyramid schemes is the U.S. financial services industry that rolls over America’s $12 trillion debt, a large chunk of which is due to the Chinese and other Asian depositors.
On most geopolitical issues, the United States and China have little in common. China props up the Stalinist regime of North Korea, abuses the human rights of its citizens, fires up a coal plant every month, buys spheres of influence in all sorts of rogue states like Iran and the D.R. Congo, and refuses to co-operate in international currency reforms.
In turn, China has little time for American running-dog policies in Afghanistan and India, feels Taiwan is an internal matter, remains terrified of a re-armed Japan, and is fearful that its U.S. dollar-denominated financial assets are wasting away in Margaritaville.
These differences of opinion ought to necessitate substantive diplomatic exchanges. In a positive sense, American consumers have fueled much of China’s economic growth and political confidence, and Chinese production can be an engine of increasing affluence in the developing world, interests that both countries should share.
Instead, empty symbolism will likely reign for the remainder of President Obama’s package tour. Like President Nixon, he’ll leave behind an optimistic-sounding protocol (on global warming, nuclear disarmament, and the wealth of nations) and come home with swell pictures of the Great Wall.
Someday the lack of a serious dialogue between the United States and China might be the subject of a show trial (in either country). After all, the question of “Who lost China?” has been a specter of American foreign policy since 1949. And even in the booming free-market China that Obama will no doubt admire, no one wants to be known as a “capitalist-roader.”
Matthew Stevenson was born in New York, but has lived in Switzerland since 1991. He is the author of, among other books, Letters of Transit: Essays on Travel, History, Politics, and Family Life Abroad. His most recent book is An April Across America. In addition to their availability on Amazon, they can be ordered at Odysseus Books, or located toll-free at 1-800-345-6665. He may be contacted at email@example.com.