[Viewpoint] Making foreign things serve China

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[Viewpoint] Making foreign things serve China

Mark, an American, was teaching English in China’s Fujian Province in the mid-1990s. One day, a student invited him to his brother’s wedding. After an eight-hour bus ride, Mark was amazed to see the guests and the bride and groom waiting for him to arrive. He was welcomed with applause and assigned to a seat at the head of his table. When the bride and groom visited each table to thank the guests, Mark was asked to accompany them.

For a while, he enjoyed the feeling of being a celebrity at the wedding. But when a student told Mark he had “upgraded the level of the wedding,” he realized that being a blue-eyed American made him more an exotic decoration. This anecdote is an episode from “On the Front Lines of Doing Business in China,” a book by James McGregor.

The politics of China can often be represented through photos because a picture can say more than words. Sao Huaze was president of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, for eight years during the 1990s. He said the most memorable moment of his life came one morning in 1973 when the Cultural Revolution was at its peak.

That morning, a photo of Deng Xiaoping in a newspaper caught his eye. When the Cultural Revolution began, Deng was purged from the political party to work at a tractor factory in a remote rural area, disappearing from the media. Sao recalled that he had shed tears of joy because the photo confirmed the comeback of Deng to fight the Gang of Four. Sao recalled that he thought the madness of the Cultural Revolution would end soon.

China’s foreign policy is also represented in photos. The master in this field was Mao Zedong. The relationship between China and the Soviet Union began to decline after the death of Stalin, and China began to worry about a possible Soviet invasion in 1970. Mao then improved U.S.-China relations.

Mao invited Edgar Snow, an American journalist, to Beijing in October of that year and showed up at the National Day celebration parade with him. Snow appeared next to Mao on the rostrum.

The photo of an American standing next to the top leader of China was to send a message that China could be a friend of the United States. According to Henry Kissinger’s “On China,” the Chinese media was talented at using Mao’s photos to announce the mood of the government or the direction of its policies. A photo of Mao shaking his finger during a meeting with a foreign guest meant he was displeased.

Last week, the meeting of the U.S. and Chinese leaders was at the center of the world’s attention. China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, who will soon succeed President Hu Jintao, visited the United States for five days. The U.S. has gained a lot from the trip, including an opportunity to study the future power of China and build a friendship. And at the same time, it did not forget to remind China of the importance of improving human rights.

The United States was particularly delighted with some people’s interpretation that Xi visited America to gain favor in its eyes. Hu Jintao had also visited the United States in 2002 when he was the vice president. Many analyzed that it has become an established routine for a future Chinese leader to visit the U.S. There was a nuance that a Chinese leader crosses the Pacific to get an endorsement. Is that really the case?

What did China want to gain through Xi’s visit to America? The answer was in the photo published on the front page of the People’s Daily on Feb. 15. It captured Xi’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. In the photo, Xi’s imposing appearance overwhelmed the slim-fit Obama. That was the key point. It was to show the Chinese people that their future leader was treated highly by the U.S. president “as a leader of a superpower.” It was to serve a domestic purpose.

The process of selecting the Chinese leader is still a mystery. Whether Xi is a strong leader, what he is thinking and if his leadership is recognized internationally are still questions of the Chinese people. His trip to the United States, which included 27 tightly scheduled events, was meticulously planned to answer those questions.

Obama is an “exotic decoration” to show the Chinese people that Xi is qualified as the country’s next leader. The U.S. president’s role was like that of Mark in the wedding.


*The author is the director of the JoongAng Ilbo China Institute.

by You Sang-chul

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