The Chinese View of President Hu's U.S. Visit

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Chinese President Hu Jintao ends his four-day visit to the United States on Friday after a meeting with President Bush at the White House on Thursday marred by a heckler and an embarrassing snafu involving China's national anthem. Alex Chadwick talks to Simon Elegant, Time magazine's Beijing bureau chief, about how people in China view President Hu's visit.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Chinese President Hu Jintao concludes his visit to the U.S. with a speech at Yale University today. At home the end of this visit cannot come soon enough; that's according to Time magazine's bureau chief in Beijing, Simon Elegant. He joins us now.

Welcome, Simon. And how did Mr. Hu's performance at the White House and the reception that he received there, how is that playing in China?

Mr. SIMON ELEGANT (Time): So far, of course, the shouts and screams on the White House lawn by the Falun Gong protestor have been completely blacked out of the TV. So most Chinese won't know this has happened. And they also won't know that when the national anthems are played, one of the White House announcers inadvertently said the anthem was of the Republic of China, rather than the People's Republic of China, which is, for a Chinese, I would say a pretty mind-boggling gaffe on the scale that I think a lot of Chinese when they find out about it will probably believe that it was done deliberately as an insult.

CHADWICK: So the announcer at the White House referred to the anthem, the Chinese anthem that they're playing as that of the Republic of China, which the Chinese take to mean Taiwan. He should have said the People's Republic of China. But aside from these gaffes and the interruption from the heckler, what about the substantive things that happened in this visit?

Mr. ELEGANT: Hu wanted legitimacy in the eyes of not only of the public, which is one constituency, he is a much less powerful man than his predecessor, he's first among equals. The United States have actually denied him what he really wanted, which is a full quote-unquote "state visit," which involves a formal dinner at the White House, and they called it a working visit.

So they were unhappy about that. The Chinese are very conscious of what's happened previously. So for him, he wanted to match what previous Chinese leaders have had.

CHADWICK: So you're saying that in this case, the symbolism for this trip that really was the substance. He just wanted to go and stand with the American president and get his picture taken.

Mr. ELEGANT: Pretty much. I mean he also wanted to show a smiling face. The Chinese are very conscious, and he's very conscious, of the fact there's a slowly ratcheting up, kind of worries about the trade imbalance and they're also very conscious that there's a lot of talk in Washington, and the whole of the United States, about, you know, the challenge of rising power. They've seen the Pentagon assessment of future possibility of military challenges by China.

They're very aware of that. So he wanted to be, you know, show that China's a good friend to America and smile, basically. So that -- I think that part of it didn't go to badly, I guess.

CHADWICK: You said that Mr. Hu is a first among equals. Would he actually be damaged in the eyes of his equals and of other Chinese leaders by this kind of fumbled symbolism that occurred at the White House on this visit?

Mr. ELEGANT: Talking to people ahead of the visit, the one thing that was stressed was that when there's not one leader who's completely in control in the mode of Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, that kind of a person who rules with an iron fist and controlled things, when it's a first among equals, he's much more vulnerable as in any political system to maneuvering by factions which would undermine him. And perceptions of weakness, perceptions the trip didn't go as well as it might have would be used against him. He personally would be very unhappy about that.

I think more broadly, it's worth making the point that Chinese people themselves are very sensitive to this kind of thing. If you remember in 1999, the United States Air Forces conducted a program to try and stop the fighting in the Balkans and they bombed the Chinese embassy and killed three people.

CHADWICK: Right.

Mr. ELEGANT: To this day, there's not a Chinese that I've met who doesn't believe that was deliberate, even though the United States repeatedly and profusely apologized and said that was from a map reading error. But I'm convinced in my own mind that they will equally look upon these two things as deliberate, because it seems so inconceivable that the two gaffes like that could happen without some sort of connivance. It will seem that way, I'm sure.

CHADWICK: Simon Elegant, Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine. Simon, thank you.

Mr. ELEGANT: Sure.

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