While I get the finer points of (probably) the last significant and substantial post I write up these holidays – and completely miss my goal of a 50% post rate – I wanted to take a break and write something from my Hong Kong trip. It is timely as President Obama nears a potential meeting with the Dalai Lama, which will undoubtedly see China set off in a round of verbal abuse for their biggest customer.
I was (some might say, myself included) fortunate in my timing for my holiday. Google, a few weeks prior, had come under attack from ‘sources’ (see: government officials) within China. I blogged about it at the time – which you can find here – and came to the conclusion that Google’s proposed withdrawal from China set up a signal that companies and foreign governments might want to get serious and tow a hard line with China. And it seemed to work when Google was backed by a number of other companies (verbally, not anything substantial; they were also told not to mess around with China, too, by others), and then Google said that they would be considering not adhering to the government-imposed censorship of search results. The dispute is still ongoing, with both Google and the Chinese government ‘in talks’ over both search and non-search operations of Google within China. Who knows where this will end up.
Following this, and related to it, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a public speech which named China as an Internet censor (as if you didn’t know) and shamed them for stifling the age-old American tradition of freedom and liberty. I poke fun, but Clinton had some serious points in her speech. When taken in the light of the previous event, it would seem that it was an unofficial backing of Google in their dispute with China. And further backing seems to come in the form of the US State Department’s meeting with US-based Internet companies, with a focus on online freedom. No doubt the meeting will dwell on a possible policy towards China.
After this, and while I was away, President Obama unveiled to Congress a huge proposed sale of arms to Taiwan. Some $6.4 billion in arms and munitions. Of course, Congress had 30 days to review the submission before the Obama administration can act, but these sorts of things have a high rate of success in getting through Congress. The newspapers, that day, were plastered with what could easily be mistaken for war-time news. There were pictures of missiles being launched, tanks, rows of troops, military maps, and all sorts of propaganda. President Obama, more so than anyone (more than Hu Jintao, President of the PRC, or Ma Ying-jeou, President of the RoC), could be seen on every odd page in the newspapers. Every opinion writer in the English newspapers had something to say about the arms sale. These opinions ranged from “This is an insult to China!” to “This is a grave insult to China!”. Even the ‘unbiased’ coverage spelled out an impending doom for Sino-American relations.
When the following day rolled around, and US officials had come out and said that the United States was “committed to help defend Taiwan” (and other hard-line words), it just started up the machine even more, with another day of the same. I was surprised at how a reply to what was being said in China actually started the debate all over again – as if the US was expected to let China rant and rave (and rant and rave they were did!) and be quiet about it.
And then, not even a week later (and while I was still there) the State Department must have let leak that there might be a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama. This seemed to be more offensive than the arms sale! Not only did all the hyperbole about the Sino-American relations, article about the ‘mistakes’ that the US was making, and threats (serious) of economic repercussions come out, but a whole stream of hate was directed against the Dalai Lama as well. I knew China had no good feelings about him to begin with, but now that the Dalai Lama could possibly meet the President of the United States a who new vicious vein of attack started pumping blood into the heart of the Chinese news industry. I’m positive it was all orchestrated by the government (though that’s not much of a shocker that).
What I noticed through all this, and what is the main point of the whole post, was just how obsessed China is with the United States. Obviously I was there at a time when all the stars were aligned. But even before the arms trade came to light, I noticed as lot of references – both in the culture I was observing as well as throughout the media – towards the US. All the TV shows that I were waiting to come back on at home as the new seasons started were starting new at exactly the same time. They were all dubbed over or subtitled of course. But they were all there. Any well-known magazine that you needed – TIME, Financial Review, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair – you could easily get. Alongside Asian films were the regular Hollywood blockbusters.
I understand that Hong Kong isn’t China per se: it owes a lot to its British heritage, that it’s self-administered, and it’s more ‘Westernised’ than the mainland. But, on some level, it has to be representative of some strain of Chinese conceptualisation of the United States or China’s realisation of international relations. All the authors of even the English papers were Chinese (I know, I couldn’t actually tell a Chinese name from a non, but I am confident in assuming), the government was as quoted as national (and sometimes regional) academics, and foreign experts on China or Sino-American relations were credible.
This was one of the big shocks that came my way on the trip: Just who fixed on the US China was. I had thought China would be obsessed with China. Or at least Asia. But I never got the feeling that they were. Which probably says something about the way I (and I suspect a lot of other people) think of China. It’s not self-centred, nor is it acting (from the insider-perspective at least) as some sort of international bully. It’s actually more concerned with what its main economic competitor is doing than most other things.
At least, that’s how I saw it.