Stairways to Heaven

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Sometimes giants behave like kids. Or is it perhaps that when they have nothing  substantial to say, world leaders turn into toddlers and start poking each other in the ribs?

There was no good reason to call for the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. G20 is a self-appointed group of the most powerful countries on Earth. It is not an institution that would compel the participants to fulfill the agreements reached during the brief meeting. The group resembles a sort of court of the most powerful leaders in the world, who chose to meet in picturesque and exclusive places. It is a great photo op, and on rare occasion — for the minor members of the group — a chance to shake hands and exchange a few words with the biggest, most powerful chaps of this world.

And yet, none of the present world leaders who gathered in Hangzhou is a poet. I have no clue if any of the crowd that invaded Hangzhou last weekend for less than 48 hours knew or saw any of the beauty offered by wonderful, melancholic landscape of the West Lake. Did they have time to notice the incredible nature that is reflected in the lake? Did they walk through the parks, sip a bit of a perfumed dragon green tea, and do nothing important? For just an hour? For a half an hour, at least? Like the famous Chinese poets and philosophers who have visited the lakeside for centuries — contemplating the beauty, writing poetry, just looking for inspiration. There were many of them in the history of Imperial China, and even the late dictator, Mao Zedong — a poet himself — loved to spend long periods of time there.

It appears that after the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and Expo 2010 in Shanghai, Xi Jinping, who came into power in 2012, needed his own international stage to parade on. The G20 Summit and world leaders coming to his house? Not bad, as Cheng Li from Brookings Institution told the China Daily: “The sheer fact that world leaders went to China to attend the summit is a success, because it was at a time that the global economy is facing serious problems and every nation has their own agenda… The G20 Summit is more successful (than Olympics or Expo) because it is not just a sports or cultural event but redefines the global political and economic order and governance.”

As we can see, Cheng attributes importance to the fact that the foreign dignitaries responded to the call of the new emperor and actually attended the summit. But he does not have much to say about the content of the meeting — Hangzhou was obviously entirely domestic affair.

It is, however, interesting to note that the China Daily is one of the country’s propaganda mouthpieces, known for misquotation and patriotic editing. So we do not really know if the above quote is exact. But one thing is for sure: with a quote from a scholar, the paper wanted to underline the fact that the world leaders attended, and that China therefore counts in the world.

Having said that, to me, Cheng represents a generation of scholars that used to flourish in Western academia about 30 years ago, when they were trying to explain the peculiarities of Chinese politics. They were called sinologists, deemed qualified as experts because of their knowledge of the Chinese language.

Cheng and some other scholars are now replacing that retired generation of sinologists, proposing themselves to be bridge-makers between East and West. Cheng, for example, has specialized in explaining the thinking and behavior of the Chinese leadership, marking the generational and social cultural differences among the Chinese political elite.

However, for many observers, the G20 in Hangzhou was neither a summit on poetry nor any sort of brainstorming meeting intended to resolve an important issue, like how to get America out of the Pacific Area.

Not exactly what the politicians at Hangzhou had in mind for the immediate future. Bloomberg describes the dynamic that exists behind the tension in the South China Sea:

In fact, the U.S. views frictions with China from a geo-strategic perspective, seeing the South China Sea dispute as a test of which power will predominate in the Asia-Pacific. Ever since U.S. leaders started talking about a “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, they’ve worked under the assumption that a stronger China will inevitably pursue expansionism — and thus needs to be countered by the U.S. and its allies.

Against this background, any move by China naturally looks like an attempt to weaken U.S. strategic primacy in the region. And at the same time, American rhetoric and activities clearly targeted at China are bound to trigger a strong Chinese reaction. Given such a “security dilemma,” the risk of escalated China-U.S. confrontation or even conflict is becoming increasingly serious.

So how is it that, in such a delicate situation — when every move might have an impact on the way things will develop in the future — the Chinese hosts risked an incident with the American president? Is it true that Obama’s security refused to use the Chinese stairgate that would allow the American guest a more presidential appearance when he arrived in Hangzhou? That instead of the red carpet that had been offered, President Obama opted to descend off the plane using a smaller, retractable emergency stairway that was built into the belly of the plane?

I tried to figure out what happened:

First, it should be noted that Air Force One does not carry a big retractable staircase for the president to walk down from the upper floor of the presidential plane. The stairway — and the red carpet — are always offered by the host country. So some of the reports on the incident in Hangzhou are wrong in asserting that Chinese authorities did not allow the Americans to roll out their big stairway.

It’s just like in 1972, when Kissinger secretly visited China on the Pakistan Boeing 707, the Chinese had to provide a way for Kissinger to get off that plane. Forty-four years ago, the Chinese needed to build that stairway in a hurry. They wanted the American guest on their soil fast.

This time, though, it was different. It was the third time that President Obama visited China. The first two times, there were no problems. But this time in Hangzhou, something went wrong, as you can read in this account.

It is not very clear what the exact reason was that Americans refused Chinese service. Was it for some small technical detail that Chinese technicians could not explain in English to the American security, as one of the reports suggested? Did this trigger the tension? Whatever happened, the result was that President Obama descended from the ass of the plane.

Was it stubbornness on both sides that incited arguments among the staff, journalists, and secret service members? We don’t really know. However, this embarrassing incident demonstrates that the two sides do not trust each other. And no matter how innocent this incident was, it is scary to see how thin everybody’s nerves are — on both sides. And with the accumulation of military warfare in South China Sea, this kind of nervousness might lead to accidents with much more serious consequences.

Elizabeth C. Economy put the situation into better perspective in her blog, explaining why Chinese leadership might be interested in humiliating the American president in such a bratty way. As Economy summed up, things have not gone well for China in the last few months:

First, and most significantly, in July, a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China and for the Philippines in the latter’s case regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea. … [As] legal scholar Tara Davenport argues, the award has a number of additional important ramifications, including: pushing China to clarify its policies, providing private actors such as oil companies with a legal decision on which to base their investment decisions, and serving as a “focal point” that can be used by other claimants to pressure China to adjust its behavior. China even tried to round up countries in its own version of a “coalition of the willing”—but we all know how that ends.

Second, Hong Kong voters turned out in record numbers to vote in the Legislative Council elections over the first weekend in September. The results swept into office several young democrats, who have been pushing for greater political autonomy—even independence—from Beijing. One of them, 23-year old Nathan Law, received the second highest number of votes in the Hong Kong island constituency. With their victories, the democrats retain enough seats to veto any efforts by the pro-Beijing government to effect constitutional change.

Third, China suffered a few high-profile setbacks in its going global strategy for Chinese state-owned energy companies. Australia rejected a bid by China’s State Grid Corp. to buy a majority stake in Australia’s electric grid—Ausgrid. And in the United Kingdom, newly-elected Prime Minister Theresa May put a temporary hold on the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, in which China has a one-third stake. Previous Prime Minister David Cameron had hailed the plant as a “historic deal.” In both cases, Chinese officials or official media stated that further Chinese investment could well be harmed by these setbacks.

Fourth, China’s G20 moment was hijacked by the confusion surrounding President Obama’s path off his airplane. Did China deliberately snub President Obama by not providing a red carpet descent off his plane? Was the United States simply being difficult? Did a Chinese official really yell, “This is our country!” at a U.S. official? Inquiring minds apparently wanted to know more about this event than about international efforts to combat global corruption or to reform international financial institutions.

And finally, China failed to deliver on its Olympic promise, earning just over half the gold medals of the United States and one fewer than the United Kingdom. No one outside China really cares how many medals China wins; people care how athletes from their own country fare, about athletes with compelling personal stories, and about athletes that transcend nationality like Usain Bolt. However, the Chinese media made such a fuss about the fact that the number of gold medals didn’t matter that of course, everyone understood that it really did matter.

It is possible, but unlikely, that some of these hits to China’s soft power will prompt Beijing to consider how its policies at home and its diplomacy abroad may contribute negatively to its international image. In the Orwellian world of China, however, it is likely that none of this actually matters and some of it never happened. China won’t abide by the South China Sea ruling, it will continue to crush democracy in Hong Kong, there will be other energy deals to be had, the G20 in Hangzhou was a “great success,” and no one cares about winning medals at the Olympics.

In other words, Xi Jinping can win at home by losing abroad.

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