Can't We Just Be Friends?

By Liu, Melinda | Newsweek, January 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

Can't We Just Be Friends?


Liu, Melinda, Newsweek


Byline: Melinda Liu; With Isaac Stone Fish

Chinese President Hu Jintao comes to America with plenty of disputes to resolve--if that's what he's here for.

From outside the Hu Clan's splendid ancestral hall, tucked away in Anhui province's tiny village of Longchuan, there's no sight of the once forbidden embellishments. But walk inside through the main gate, turn around, and there they are: nine intricate dragons covering the huge gate's wooden frame. Back when the place was built, more than five centuries ago, during the Ming dynasty, only the emperor was allowed to display such images. If the imperial court had known about the Hu clan's hidden dragons, everyone responsible for the sacrilege would have been at risk of prison or beheading. But with the emblems of ambition facing discreetly inward, the clan survived and prospered.

The lesson has not been lost on Hu Jintao, a member of the clan's 48th generation and the embodiment of Deng Xiaoping's adage: "Hide your capabilities and bide your time." After almost eight years as China's president, he remains a near-total enigma--a startling contrast from the outsize personalities of his predecessors Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and even Jiang Zemin. "He reminds me of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland," says one former U.S. official who has spent time in close proximity with Hu. Foreign analysts are often baffled by how someone so diffident could be the leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth.

Hu's state visit to Washington this week is unlikely to dispel the riddles that surround him. As Beijing views things, this trip isn't about policy; it's about picture-perfect appearances. U.S. officials may focus on specific "deliverables" like reviving high-level military talks, boosting imports of U.S. goods, and reining in North Korea's nuclear-development program. Beijing has its own objectives, such as ending U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and reducing America's military presence in Asia. Besides, there's the perennial arm-wrestling over China's currency, thought by Washington to be provocatively undervalued--a point reiterated by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the eve of Hu's visit--but a subject on which Beijing brooks no dictation.

China's transcendent priority on this visit, however, is to establish face, based on the principle that diplomatic progress depends on mutual respect. Notwithstanding Beijing's very concrete global strategy, the point is to ensure a flawless show, and Hu has proved he can handle the spotlight when he must, as he did in 2002, on his first official U.S. trip as China's vice president, chatting with schoolchildren at the Lincoln Memorial and bantering with local politicians.

Yet given a choice, Hu clearly prefers to remain as invisible as possible. "He has absolute commitment to consensus," says Kerry Brown, a China specialist at the British think tank Chatham House. "No speech has any personal tone, no interviews where he would step out of this, no indication of a private life." Brown, who is writing a book on Hu, says the approach serves excellently in Chinese politics, but it's another matter in international negotiations. "There is, of course, a huge problem with the way China speaks to the world," says Brown. "He is so anonymous, empty, almost like the Man Without Qualities. And this makes it very tough for those speaking on behalf of China to feel that they've got the top man behind them."

Westerners can have difficulty comprehending a public figure so intensely private. Even many Chinese are unaware of such basic details of their president's life as the fact that he was raised by an aunt after his mother died when he was 7. Over the years almost every hint of personality has been expunged from published accounts of Hu's history. Back in his school days, for example, he was known not only as a scholar but also as a singer, dancer, and table-tennis player, and the press often mentioned those talents in the late 1990s, when he was vice president.

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