Obama’s “A Promised Land”, on China

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The China part in this book seems to focus narrowly on the the first year of Obama’s Presidency. There is no mention of Xi Jinping at all. It is understandable given that the book is about his first term.


Obama said Denny Blair, his first DNI, “had written extensively on the role of economic and cultural diplomacy in managing a rising China,” and Blair would occasionally arrange experts to brief Obama on big picture, long term topics about China during the Presidential Daily Brief.


Obama said watching the Chinese delegation operating at the G20, he was convinced that any challenge of China against he United States was still “decades away”, and that “when it came, it would most likely happen as a result of America’s strategic mistakes.”

Obama saw Hu Jintao as a “nondescript man” and he understood that Hu was not a particular strong leader. During their meeting, Obama said “Hu appeared content to rely on pages of prepared talking points, with no apparent agenda beyond encouraging continued consultation and what he referred to as ‘win-win’ cooperation.”

Obama found Wen Jiabao the premier more impressive. He described Wen as “a small, bespectacled figure who spoke without notes and displayed a sophisticated grasp of the current crisis.”

Overall Obama felt that “the Chinese were in no hurry to seize the reins of the international world order, viewing it as a headache they didn’t need. Wen had little to say about how to manage the financial crisis going forward. From his country’s standpoint, the onus was on us to figure it out.”


As part of the protocol, Obama said everyone on the Air Force One was asked to “leave any non-governmental electronic devices on the plane and to operate under the assumption that our communications were being monitored.”

Obama described the Chinese surveillance technologies as “impressive”, saying that the Chinese had hacked into his campaign HQ, which he took it as a positive sign for his elections prospect. He also said China’s “ability to remotely convert any mobile phone into a recording device was widely known.”

To counter the Chinese surveillance in the Beijing hotel:

“To make calls involving national security matters from the hotel, I had to go to a suite down the hall fitted with a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) — a big blue tent plopped down in the middle of the room that hummed with an eerie, psychedelic buzz designed to block any nearby listening devices. Some members of our team dressed and even showered in the dark to avoid the hidden cameras we could assume had been strategically placed in every room. (Marvin, on the other hand, said he made a point of walking around his room naked and with the lights on — whether out of pride or in protest wasn’t entirely clear.)”

Marvin Nicholson was Obama’s Trip Director.

Obama stayed in the Beijing International Club hotel — now the St Regis — near Jianguomen and the old US embassy compound.

The Chinese MSS also searched Gary Locke’s room while he was away:

“At one point, my commerce secretary, Gary Locke, was on his way to a prep session when he realized he’d forgotten something in his suite. Upon opening the door, he discovered a pair of housekeepers making up his bed while two gentlemen in suits carefully thumbed through the papers on his desk. When Gary asked what they were doing, the men walked wordlessly past him and disappeared. The housekeepers never looked up, just moved on to changing out the towels in the bathroom as if Gary were invisible. Gary’s story generated plenty of head shakes and chuckles from our team, and I’m sure that someone down the diplomatic food chain eventually filed a formal complaint. But no one brought up the incident when we sat down later for our official meeting with President Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation. We had too much business to do with the Chinese — and did enough of our own spying on them — to want to make a stink.”


Obama said the city “seemed like Singapore on steroids.” This is how he described the luncheon:

“At an ornate banquet hall, the mayor of the city — an up-and-comer in the Communist Party who, with his tailored suit and jaunty sophistication, somehow reminded me of Dean Martin — pulled out all the stops for a luncheon between our delegation and Chinese and American business leaders, with rare delicacies and wine pairings that would suit a high-end wedding at the Ritz. Reggie Love, my ever-constant body man, was most impressed with a waitstaff made up entirely of stunning young women in flowing white gowns, as slender and tall as runway models. ‘Who knew Communists looked like that’ he said, shaking his head.”

The “Dean Martin” mayor Obama failed to mention by name is Han Zheng, now vice premier and №7 in the Chinese Communist Party.

This is how Obama described his speech in Fudan University:

“The Chinese authorities, wary of my usual unscripted format, had handpicked the participants from some of Shanghai’s most elite universities — and although they were courteous and enthusiastic, their questions had little of the probing, irreverent (“So what measures will you take to deepen this close relationship between cities of the United States and China?” was about as tough as it got.) I couldn’t decide whether party officials had prescreened all the questions or the students just knew better than to say anything that could land them in hot water.”

More insightful observation on the Chinese students:

“After shaking hands and chatting with some of the students at the end of the program, I concluded that at least some of their earnest patriotism wasn’t simply for show. They were too young to have experienced the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or witnessed the crackdown in Tiananmen Square; that history wasn’t taught in school, and I doubted their parents talked about it …. It was tempting to think that the attitudes of these students would change over time … But that was hardly guaranteed. In fact, China’s economic success had made its brand of authoritarian capitalism a plausible alternative to Western-style liberalism in the minds of young people not just in Shanghai but across the developing world … I left the town hall acutely aware that winning over this new generation depended on my ability to show that America’s democratic, rights-based, pluralistic system could still deliver on the promise of a better life.”


Obama didn’t like the style of Hu:

“As usual, my meeting with President Hu Jintao was a sleepy affair: Whatever the topic, he liked to read from thick stacks of prepared remarks, pausing every so often for translations to English that seemed to have been prepared in advance and, somehow, always lasted longer than his original statement. When it was my turn to speak, he’d shuffle through his papers, looking for whatever response his aides had prepared for him. Efforts to break the monotony with personal anecdotes or the occasional joke (“Give me the name of your contractor,” I told him after learning that the massive, columned Great Hall of the People had been built in less than a year) usually resulted in a blank stare, and I was tempted more than once to suggest that we could save each other time by just exchanging papers and reading them at our leisure.”

On Iran:

Among other things, Obama also pushed Hu in the meeting to sanction Iran, saying otherwise the Israelis would be forced to strike Iran, which will do more damage to Chinese oil supplies.

He said Hu remained non-committal on sanctions, “but judging by his shift in body language and the furious notetaking by his ministers, the seriousness of our message on Iran got his attention.”

Chinese media said Wang Qishan, Ling Jihua, Wang Huning and Dai Bingguo were in the meeting, and it is unclear who were the ones taking notes.

On Trade:

Obama pressed China on trade in his meeting with Wen Jiabao, but Wen again played the “developing country” card.

After Obama pushed back by saying US can no longer overlook China’s unfair trade practices, Wen took a different track: “suggesting that I just give him a list of U.S. products we wanted China to buy more of and he’d see what he could do. (He was especially keen on including military and high-tech items that America barred from export to China for national security reasons.) ” Obama replied that they need a structural solution, not piecemeal concession.

(Funny that after a decade the talking points are still the same.)

Obama concluded that: “I was reminded once again that for Wen and the rest of China’s leaders, foreign policy remained purely transactional. How much they gave and how much they got would depend not on abstract principles of international law but on their assessment of the other side’s power and leverage. Where they met no resistance, they’d keep on taking.”

The dinner at the People’s Great Hall:

They ended the dinner with performances by Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongolian dance troupes, and a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by the People’s Liberation Army Orchestra. “We know he’s your favorite,” President Hu leaned over to tell Obama.

The Americans were tired. On the other table, “Larry Summers was fast asleep, his mouth open and his head lolling back.”

The interview:

It is a pity that Obama didn’t mention the interview he did in Beijing with the Southern Weekly and he may not know that the editors at the newspaper pushed hard to have his interview published in full. Eventually only a small part of the interview made it to the print, but the editors were bold enough to deliberately left a big blank space in the newspaper to protest the censorship.


Obama described how he and Hillary Clinton crashed a secret meeting the Chinese held with leaders of Brazil, India and South Africa, apparently trying to hammer out an agreement without the Americans.

Obama and Hillary walked into the room with the Chinese security agents trying to stop them.

“You ready for me, Wen?” Obama called out, watching the Chinese leader’s face drop in surprise. He then walked around the table to shake each of their hands. “Gentlemen! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. How about we see if we can do a deal?”

He then turned to Wen and delivered this very confrontational speech,

“Mr. Premier, we’re running out of time,” I said, “so let me cut to the chase. Before I walked into this room, I assume, the plan was for all of you to leave here and announce that the U.S. was responsible for the failure to arrive at a new agreement. You think that if you hold out long enough, the Europeans will get desperate and sign another Kyoto-style treaty. The thing is, I’ve been very clear to them that I can’t get our Congress to ratify the treaty you want...

“Of course, I may be wrong,” I said. “Maybe you can convince everyone that we’re to blame. But that won’t stop the planet from getting warmer. And remember, I’ve got my own megaphone, and it’s pretty big. If I leave this room without an agreement, then my first stop is the hall downstairs where all the international press is waiting for news. And I’m going to tell them that I was prepared to commit to a big reduction in our greenhouse gases, and billions of dollars in new assistance, and that each of you decided it was better to do nothing. I’m going to say the same thing to all the poor countries that stood to benefit from that new money. And to all the people in your own countries that stand to suffer the most from climate change. And we’ll see who they believe.”

“Once the translators in the room caught up to me, the Chinese environmental minister, a burly, round-faced man in glasses, suddenly stood up and started speaking in Mandarin, his voice rising, his hands waving in my direction, his face reddening in agitation. He went on like this for a minute or two, the entire room not quite sure what was happening. Eventually, Premier Wen lifted a slender, vein-lined hand and the minister abruptly sat back down. I suppressed the urge to laugh and turned to the young Chinese woman who was translating for Wen.

“What did my friend there just say?” I asked. Before she could answer, Wen shook his head and whispered something. The translator nodded and turned back to me.

“Premier Wen says that what the environmental minister said is not important,” she explained. “Premier Wen asks if you have the agreement you’re proposing with you, so that everyone can look at the specific language again.”

In the end the Chinese budged, and Americans won. The “angry, burly round-faced man in glasses” should be Xie Zhenhua. He was not the minister of environment but deputy head of the NDRC who led the climate talks.


This is how Obama summed up the US-China relations at that time:

“On the surface, the relationship we’d inherited looked relatively stable, without the high-profile diplomatic ruptures we’d seen with the Russians … But beneath the diplomatic niceties lurked long-simmering tensions and mistrust — not only around specific issues like trade or espionage but also around the fundamental question of what China’s resurgence meant for the international order and America’s position in the world.”

Obama said his views on China do not fit neatly into any camps:

“I didn’t share my union supporters’ instinctive opposition to free trade, and I didn’t believe we could fully reverse globalization, any more than it was possible to shut down the internet. I thought that Clinton and Bush had made the right call in encouraging China’s integration into the global economy — history told me that a chaotic and impoverished China posed a bigger threat to the United States than a prosperous one. I considered China’s success at lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty to be a towering human achievement.

Still, the fact remained that China’s gaming of the international trading system had too often come at America’s expense … The flood of Chinese goods into the United States had made flat-screen TVs cheaper and helped keep inflation low, but only at the price of depressing the wages of U.S. workers. I’d promised to fight on those workers’ behalf for a better deal on trade, and I intended to keep that promise.”

He went on to talk about the importance of enlisting the help of allies to “nudge China toward better behaviors”, and he insisted that the “pivot” is not to contain China or to stifle its growth.

— END —

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