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Obama’s Chinese Balance Sheet

CAMBRIDGE, UK – US President Barack Obama’s first trip to China was like a splendid stage play. The performance was long rehearsed in both Washington and Beijing, because both governments needed at least the appearance of a successful visit. China’s ruling Communist Party needed Obama’s unequivocal endorsement of China’s increasingly important international role in order to buttress its domestic legitimacy. The US needed China’s cooperation to demonstrate the effectiveness of Obama’s new strategy of collaborative global leadership.

Now that the play is over and the applause has died down, it is time to check the balance sheet and see how much Obama achieved and how much he conceded.

On the positive side of the ledger, Obama received ceremonial treatment not normally accorded to visiting foreign leaders, even other visiting US presidents, demonstrating the importance China’s government attached to the visit. China’s President Hu Jintao sent his likely successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, to greet Obama at Beijing Airport, going well beyond the usual protocol. And Hu himself dined with Obama twice during his two-day stay in Beijing – a gesture never made to any visiting foreign leader, including Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama also initially appeared to make some progress in giving voice to the universal values of human rights and democracy. He met with students in Shanghai in his favorite “town-hall” format, which allowed for face-to-face discussions with young Chinese. Moreover, China’s government allowed Nanfang Zhoumo , the country’s most liberal newspaper, to conduct a 12-minute exclusive interview with Obama.