Hu, Obama, and the Chinese-Confucian Hankering for Status Recognition


Everyone and their mother has commented on Hu’s trip to Washington this week. I would only add a few points.

1. I kinda wonder why Hu even wanted to come. Consider all the things the US wants to talk to China about that Hu has zero-interest in discussing: democracy, human rights, Liu Xiaobo (the 2010 Nobel Peace prize winner) and press freedom, the non-float of the yuan, the forced partnerships between foreign MNCs and Chinese companies to informally coerce technology transfer, hacking, Tibet, IPR/piracy, NK, Taiwan, the South China Sea, etc, etc… You don’t need to be a sinologist to know that the Chinese Communist party (CCP) isn’t going to change on this stuff for awhile, and certainly not at the behest of foreigners. Nor does it really even want to talk about this stuff at all; hence the Chinese recitation/dodge that almost every point of contention is an ‘internal Chinese affair.’ The tide is running in China’s direction macroeconomically, meaning China doesn’t have to listen to us. So why bother to show up at all?

2. My answer is prestige. Gordon Chang pretty much nailed it for Hu himself. China’s government is a bureaucratic monster even worse than the US government. Not only is China four times the size of the US demographically – thereby requiring more people in government – but the CCP and PLA (military) are heavily involved in politics and industry, making the beast yet larger. The only possible way that Hu can try to guide this sprawling, confused, self-contradictory Titanic of a ship-of-state is through his own stature. And what better way to buttress that than through pictures with the leader of the world’s only superpower. Dictators have no means of ascertaining their domestic legitimacy, and therefore seek parallel legitimacy abroad which can be ‘reflected’ back home. So if the president of the world’s superpower is sitting next to your repressive nasty, then it must be ok to be repressive and your guy isn’t as bad as you thought.

3. But it’s more than just Hu’s tough spot back home. China’s elites deeply hanker for US recognition. China’s national ideology is grievance and nationalism – the 100 years of humiliation. When you visit Tiananmen Square, there is a huge video screen playing regular imagery of this post-1989 ‘China is awesome’ motif. Communism is dead; ‘getting rich is glorious’ is hardly bracing or communitarian enough to bind a billion people together; democracy is not a option. So a Weimar-style nationalism of grievance and national shame is the substitute (even if Chinese academics think it is bunk, as was my experience in China). So China’s got a big chip on its shoulder and satisfying this thirst for status is the reason for all the pomp and fuss of the visit, for the Rovian levels of choreography that left nothing to spontaneity (as with the 2008 Olympics), for the Chinese insistence that it be a ‘state visit’ with Obama in a tux, for the meeting with Congress, for the empty banalities of Hu’s actual comments, etc. Process, not substance, was the whole point – a process wherein the US looks like an equal to China, not a superior, wherein the leader of the only superpower bows and toasts to a Chinese, wherein ceremonialism, flags, uniformed soldiers saluting, endless fussing about who sits where, and lofty rhetoric go unsullied by real work or substance.

4. So you say, what was the whole point then?Process for its own sake sounds like a huge waste of money all around, and giving the Chinese something for nothing. This is true, but the US is now so dependent on Chinese Treasury purchases that playing China’s reindeer games is a worthwhile tradeoff to get more of their money, at least until we get our fiscal house in order. That’s the US benefit. And for the Chinese?

Atmospherics count for a lot in Asia. Asian media is more self-congratulatory, more statist, and more concerned with image and rank of their leaders aboard. This is why ASEAN meetings, an endless, do-nothing merry-go-round of photo-ops and ceremony, still happen. Little is achieved; ASEAN is 2/3 the age of the EU but has done maybe 10% of the work. Yet still it meets, because process – with consequent coverage on CNN and pictures in the Economist or New York Times – is a goal itself.  A few years ago, when President Lee of Korea met George Bush for golf, Lee drove the golf cart around. To Americans, it looked like two buddies having fun, and this was exactly the sort of downhome, buddy-buddy stuff W liked in diplomacy. But Koreans took it as Lee chauffeuring George Bush around and got miffed that it was some kind of snub by the white guy. This was between allies, and the Americans had no idea the pic would be received that way. In fact, Lee looks like he’s having a pretty good time – all the more demonstration of Asian tetchiness on perceptions of rank and social hierarchy. For China then, this is even worse, because the media is wholly state-directed and even more jingoistic than Korea.

The root of this is Asia is Confucianism. Western traditions of equality and individualism are imports here. The long cultural tradition is hierarchy, in which a junior recognizes the moral/intellectual superiority of a senior (and increasingly today, greater wealth implies the higher ranking position). Social disruption stems from the junior’s unwillingness to recognize his place (yes, just like in Plato). Hence, the endless Chinese usage ‘harmonious society’: China’s population is supposed to recognize the moral/developmental excellence of the CCP and follow its learned orders, not protest for human rights or democracy. Applied internationally, this Confucian schematic of rank and dominance layers a further moral sheen onto the realpolitik division of the world into great, medium and small powers. For a long time, the West (and whites, to be very honest) was perceived as the senior, even if the British imperialists and American administrators who embodied this, did not know it. But with EA’s recent growth, it is time, deliciously, to rebalance the hierarchy. Hence Obama has to give a state dinner to an Asian, and W should be the one driving the car. There is a lot more going in this visit than China’s growth; Western fetes of Asian leaders serve a deep, local cultural/racial desire to see Asians in place of the Confucian master/senior in interstate relationships.

5. More generally, everyone likes recognition, and recognition flows downhill. That is, stature is imparted by those ‘above’ you. Hence the president of Korea likes golfing with W, because it makes Korea look like a great power, while the US gains little prestige from the visit. For China, the only possible state than can confer rank on it is the US. Getting US peer recognition is central to the ‘we’ve-been-stepped-on-by-foreigners’ narrative of the CCP. Rising powers particularly care a lot about recognition of their ‘place in the sun’ by the old guard.

6. Also: I was pretty pleased to see the western media give Hu a hard time on human rights. The US media was made a fool of by the Bush administration. Here was a chance to get its integrity back. Well done.

16 thoughts on “Hu, Obama, and the Chinese-Confucian Hankering for Status Recognition

  1. Well done. I wondered why Hu spent so little time in the US since that would not provide enough time to get anything substantial done. I also wonder why China and other countries put up with US urgings to moral reform without ever replying, e.g., America’s drug use fuels the international drug trade with its accompanying corruption and violence.


  2. I don’t quite understand the logic of this sentence:
    “The US media was made a fool of by the Bush administration. Here was a chance to get its integrity back.”

    “Integrity back” by questioning a foreign leader but not questioning what has essentially been a continuation of Bush policies by Obama?


    • I agree with that. There is a creepy bipartisan convergence on fighting the GWoT as if it were an episode of 24. I would like to see investigations of Bush-era torture and the rest. But China’s human rights record is a lot worse than the US’, and its leaders rarely get put on the spot to answer for this issue. So I was glad to see the US media push it.


      • The US media pushed it but I heard that question was blocked in China. In addition, for what it was worth, it was probably scripted.


  3. The CCP needs aggrandizement for its own self-legitimation and public perception; and Hu needs a photo-op to mark his place in the CCP pantheon. Those outside the Party are ambivalent so long as they make money. But the natives may be getting a bit restless. The link below is from the China Geeks blog provided by Mike Stanton’s One Free Korea (sorry I am not tech savvy). In a nutshell, it is calling for a popular uprising.


    • I agree with all of this, but I still think there is a cultural story linked to Confuncianism in here too. It is more than just the immediate problems of the CCP. Status ranking is a defining social principle in East Asian domestic societies, and this its international expression.

      Thanks for reading.


  4. Is it accurate to characterize Hu as a dictator? Obviously China is a one-party non-democratic state, but it seems a stretch to call it a dictatorship.


  5. – Dictators have no means of ascertaining their domestic legitimacy, and therefore seek parallel legitimacy abroad which can be ‘reflected’ back home.

    Dr. Bob that was very well put. Once again you nailed the essence of your argument. Very scientific. Reminds me of Obiang placing an ad in “Foreign Policy” not too long ago. In the ad he is standing next to President and Mrs. Obama. All dictators carry the same basic playbook, they may vary in content and style.

    Btw, Dr. Bob have you been following the story about the Chinese factory overlords shooting their African employees in Zambia. Real, Belgian colonial stuff. Probably wouldn’t have made much news but the Zambians made it news. Not much news in the US anyway. I wonder why African Americans don’t pick up on this stuff? Had it been a US company we would have had demonstrations for days. Why does China get a pass? Chinese dealings in Africa are horrendous. Just when the West was putting strings attached to the aid funds that they gave to Africa nations, China waltzed onto the scene with no strings attached funding thus giving Africa’s Big Men new leases on their despotism. Another issue not discussed is the fact that poaching has increased in Africa. Just when it seems that we were getting it under control in the last few years. The severed hands of endangered mountain gorillas as well as numerous decapitated heads of chimpanzees were recently discovered. Could these incidents be linked to East Asian exotic animal meat trade? Africans have always hunted chimps etc. for bush meat, but this increase might suggest that someone has joined the hunt. I don’t think that the market for such meats are found in the US, Europe, South America, The M.E., India, etc.


  6. Dr. Bob, one more thought on the above. Why are Chinese civilians carrying firearms in Zambia. Does China have some sort of SOFA with Zambia? Also, why do Chinese overlords feels the need to carry weapons to control their African employees? Are the Chinese replicating this practice elsewhere in Africa? Do you know? This could be good research for you.


  7. Mozambique is not Zambia. They have history with FRELIMO and “La Luta Continua” stuff. So there, as in places like Congo I would expect to see weapons (you don’t even weapons in Liberia anymore although ex-combatants probably know where to get them). However the jest on my question was why are Chinese foreign factory overlords carrying weapons and using them against their African employees. Is this normal? Is African life that cheap?
    In addition you are not implying that your visit to Southern Africa is a representation of all of Africa? North, West, Central, East and Southern Africa are different, just as England is not the same as Greece. Would Mexicans classify themselves as Argentinians?
    I encounter this quite often in the US, Americans think that Africa is one big country with many states.


      • Dr. Bob:

        You still have not answered my question. Why are Chinese factory overlords carrying weapons and using them on their African employees in Zambia?
        You noted that you saw rifles in Zambia. Who was carrying them? Soldiers, private security, police, the Chinese. Who?


  8. Also, Dr. Bob, I might be wrong but haven’t both “The Economist” and “FT” classified Hu as a dictator “light”? I agree that China is an oligarch. But aren’t oligarchs supposed to be leader-less? What is the leader of the Chinese oligarch’s title? Does Hu have the prower to act unilaterally is my question. Should Putin be considered a dictator, if he, as many suspect will take over Russia sometime this year? Was he a dictator as president? Where do we draw the line?


  9. Dr Bob:
    News and Commentary From Emerging Asia,
    “Chinese Managers Shoot 13 African Mine Workers”
    Also, check out this response:
    “It’s not just about safety and worker rights. Africans are from a different cultural background and don’t have the discipline and work ethic of Chinese workers i.e. see African time. I can imagine this causes problems between Chinese managers and African workers.”

    So I guess just shoot them. Where have we heard this sort of rubbish before?


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