Let's be frank. The strongest impression that most Chinese people have of Barack Obama is that he is black. The second-strongest is that he is young. And the third-strongest — based on his decision a few months ago to impose a punitive tariff on Chinese tire exports — is that he is perhaps just as willing to screw over China as all his old, white predecessors were.
This is not to downplay the significance of the president's visit here. It's just to refrain from overplaying it. Having started with the notion that Obama just might come to China and make some history, the American media is now collectively bummed that he didn't. This is silly.
To read the bulk of the U.S. press, Obama fell short on three counts:
One, his contribution to China’s human-rights struggle was limited to one answer at a carefully staged student forum in Shanghai, where he extolled the American people's right to Twitter, internet-surf, and diss him personally. (Naturally, that portion of the program was censored by Chinese news outlets — although a pretty full translation of it was easy to pull up the following day.)
Two, he didn’t talk turkey to the Chinese leadership on anything because the U.S. has sold so much debt to China and needs to sell more.
Three, he can't close a deal. The day after Barack stepped foot on the Great Wall, China was the same repressive, polluting, trade-tilting outfit it was before.
The irony here is that, although the Chinese are the ones who get their information through the twin filters of propaganda and censorship, they are also the ones who seem to have a firmer grasp than Americans on what constitutes a realistic expectation. People in the street — at least those in the malls and market-stalls of Dalian, where I have been living — are giving Obama real credit.
They give him credit for coming here in the first year of his first term. They give him credit for saying friendly things about the U.S.-China relationship (although they have serious doubts about whether his actions will prove so nice). They give him credit for holding his own umbrella in the rain, thereby emitting a humanity and a humility that they rarely see in their own, distant leaders. Unfortunately, they also credit him for not meeting with the Dalai Lama, who is commonly — if for reasons of long-term state-sponsored collective brainwashing — seen as a slave-master separatist rabble-rouser whom the world should hold in contempt.
In short, if a goal of this trip was to foster a feeling among the Chinese that they can and should work with the U.S., that goal was certainly achieved.
Other, headier goals were not. But who set those goals in the first place?
The criticism of his uninspiring — if unsurprising — punting on human rights is predicated on the idea that if Obama had come here and forcefully addressed the issue, the earth would have moved. There is no real basis to believe that, and a fairly strong basis not to. It's not as if speaking truth to power hasn't been tried: In 1994, when Beijing hosted the United Nations World Conference on Women, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton showed up and gave them hell about human rights. Her rallying cry — "women's rights are human rights" — stirred the hearts of feminists, including Chinese feminists, and echoed across the world. That speech scared the wits out of the Chinese Communist Party — but didn’t pry a pinky off their grip on power.
Then there's the idea that Obama is tiptoeing around the Chinese because they’re such a large creditor. Everyone can agree that the level of U.S. debt, including debt to China, is a problem. But the question at hand is: what specifically did the president fail to address on this trip for fear of debt-related retribution? Human rights? Currency revaluation? Pushing China to pressure its nasty friends, such as Iran? Come on. The Chinese-American debt scenario didn’t even start unfolding until the George W. Bush administration. Those thorny issues, in all the forms they have taken over time, go back a lot further. Precisely what magic were the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations working before China got all those T-bills?
Last but not least, there is the bupkuss factor: the consenus that Obama, poor jerk, has come away with nothing. No breakthroughs. No deals. Not even an Oprah "a-ha" moment. It's as if everybody thinks that some concrete public concession on at least one of the biggies — carbon emissions or political reform or North Korea — is something a U.S. president just can't leave China without, like a silk robe or a ceramic tea set.
But in reality, it's not like that. Every key element of the Sino-American relationship is too big and too convoluted for the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to apply.
So, relax, everybody. Obama came, he charmed, he left. And for now, that's perfectly fine.
Or, as Fox News-certified Maoist and soon-to-be former White House communications director Anita Dunn might put it: Obama's trip wasn't a great leap forward. But it was a step in the right direction.