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Why Hu’s $16 Billion Couldn’t Buy a Dinner

Chinese communist leader Hu Jintao tried to win a prestigious summit meeting with U.S. President Bush in the White House, but things didn’t go his way.

If a Chinese policeman sees a BMW racing wildly down a street, ignoring all traffic laws, he will definitely be furious—but may let it go. The policeman knows very well that the driver must have enough "official connections" to be so brash. In China, political connections override any law and any law enforcement.

When President Bush was preparing the diplomatic rituals for the upcoming visit of communist leader Hu Jintao, he must have had similar feelings toward China with its rising economic and military strength compounded by its brazen domestic and international record. Yet, Bush would not let it go so easily.

Hu Jintao may have had a different perspective. Hu was determined to make his first presidential visit a success. Hu needed to bolster his "international leader" status in order to strengthen his domestic politics. However, Hu’s preoccupation with his public relations achievement was not based on any substantial concessions, but depended more heavily on political formalities as well as rhetoric of how much he would win Bush over at their summit meeting.

Thus, the success of his visit was questionable from the very beginning by the ironic fact that neither side expected any meaningful results from the summit even though both sides were willing to attempt to miraculously gain something from nothing.

Issues and Goals

Hu’s calculation was not very different from the street-smart BMW driver in China. Money, plus political connections, will work everything out. It was Hu’s hope that a US$16 billion procurement check would pave a smooth path from Seattle to Washington. This humble hubris comprised a few objectives: 1) allow him to save face from his canceled trip last year; 2) alleviate American complaints about trade, currency rate, and other economic issues; 3) encourage Bush to make an anti-independence statement on Taiwan; 4) use the ceremonial aura as a symbolic endorsement by America to relax an ever-growing domestic crisis.

The fourth objective on the list, although unspoken, was really Hu’s bottom-line objective. This is very apparent when you look at the current trend of millions of Communist Party members quitting the Party, a continuing nationwide relay hunger strike, and 87,000 grassroots disturbances that occurred in the last year alone. Last, but not least, Hu needed to consolidate his political power base.

With unyielding positions on economic issues, human rights, and security, Hu’s last bet was to show the Chinese TV audience the "warm welcome" he received from the White House.{mospagebreak}

A Marginalized Visit

Hu’s visit was marginalized even before he embarked on his trip to U.S. soil. Hu was told beforehand that he would not receive the formal designated "state visit" status including a state dinner, but he would get a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn. Without the "state visit" status that he had strongly requested, Hu seemed to have already lost credibility and dignity. Bush was the first post-war president not to hold a state dinner for a visiting Chinese leader. By denying Hu that diplomatic protocol, Bush sent a clear message that Hu was neither a personal friend nor a "strategic partner."

In sharp contrast to the warm treatment he received from corporate giants Microsoft and Boeing on the West Coast, Hu received a tepid, yet ritually correct, reception at the nation’s capital. The chill in the East and the warmth in the West produced nothing in the Oval Office but formality. Hu’s formal lunch talk with President Bush truly, yet ironically, demonstrated a "matured" relationship that dared to list "open differences" but rather chose to announce steps to resolve difficult issues. What was spoken had already been said over the past years. The luncheon summit turned out to be one of the most monotonous occasions that reaffirmed each other’s positions.

If the payment of US$16 billion could have bought Hu a state dinner, it would not have been a cheap and easy price for China’s foreign trade sweatshops to pay. When it comes to a loss and gain analysis, Hu must have been even more upset to learn that the $16 billion deal failed, not only because it was viewed as being too cheap compared to America’s US$202 billion trade deficit to China, but also because it was viewed by many not as a gift but rather as China having to pay a "traffic violation" fine because of its hazardous domestic and international behaviors.

In fact, the value of the check was even further devaluated by Hu’s inability to provide even a basic explanation about trade surplus-related issues. What made matters worse was Hu’s unyielding position on the political and religious freedoms in China that Bush and the U.S. Congress have deemed so important and have been waiting for. Hu’s street-smart strategy might have inadvertently secured his role as an "irresponsible stakeholder" in the international community.

Yet Hu’s biggest disappointment came in the area in which he was most confident: to be welcomed as an honorary state guest. To the entire world audience, except for those in China who were unable to view it live due to censorship, the White House welcoming ceremony seemed to have paved the way for a Falun Gong protester. As Dr. Wenyi Wang began to utter her call to both presidents to stop the persecution, all media cameras turned away from Hu and onto her as if she was the main character on stage that day. The world halted and listened to Dr. Wang and not to Hu Jintao. From that point on, mainstream media has been focusing on Dr. Wang’s call to stop the ongoing slaughter and organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners, while Hu Jintao’s tour to the Middle East and Africa appears to have fallen into oblivion.{mospagebreak}

Why Hu’s Visit Turned Marginal

A series of seemingly random "disharmonious" incidents occurred causing Hu’s trip to become marginal. Was the United States intentionally not hospitable? This could hardly be the case as Hu received a warm welcome during his first U.S. visit in 2002 as vice president. What were the real reasons?

First, Hu has lost much of his mystery and appeal over the past three years. The current Pennsylvania Avenue whisper, "Hu is not coming to dinner," was not so much a sweet joke as a sour satire. The indication was self-evident: The Communist Party General Secretary turned out to be no more than a dry, conservative revolutionary.

What has Hu done since he has become president? He has stated that China should learn from and emulate North Korea and Cuba. He has continued the brutal persecution of political individuals, religious groups, and open-minded intellectuals. He has allowed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to build up at a tremendously fast pace. He has allowed his general, Zhu Chenghu, to threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons if it protects Taiwan, and he has encouraged irresponsible international behavior. How could Hu expect the U.S. to pay any respect to him?

Furthermore, money does not buy trust. In the short run, Hu’s failure was due to his lack of sincerity and good will, which was evident by his unwillingness to yield on any major issues. Hu failed to effectively communicate to President Bush and the American public about their main concerns. Hu acted just as he would have before his own domestic subjects. Americans simply won’t accept that.

In the long run, this distrust is deeply rooted within the fundamental differences of principles that make up these two nations. The U.S. government is elected by the people and must be accountable to the people, while the communist Chinese regime seized power by force and it has been using force to suppress its people and thus maintain its power. In the United States, people are born with inalienable human rights and the government was created only to protect those rights. In China, the communist regime has trodden upon human rights and has treated human rights as concessions.

When China exported its totalitarian behaviors outside of China, the two countries were bound to run into conflicts. The bumpy relationship between the two countries over the past seven administrations and 30-plus years, with issues emerging, festering, and later reemerging, has already demonstrated a profound distrust on both sides.
Economically speaking, the two economies are mutually beneficial and interdependent, so there have been and will be agreements now and then. However, politically, there have been and always will be difficulties-big and small-as long as the Communist Party remains in power and the political system continues to be repressive. Militarily, a communist China rise would be more of a threat than an opportunity, and a Red China would hardly be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international community.

Finally, the fact that George W. Bush is a devout Christian and Hu Jintao is an atheist already pre-determines difficulties at the top level. Bush, unlike Clinton, has paid special attention to religious beliefs, as evidenced in his selection of cabinet members and his mission statement. Belief in God sets Bush apart from Hu fundamentally. How could one imagine a communist and Christian becoming close friends? Aside from geopolitics, economic interests, and strategic balance, Bush and Hu have been total strangers.

If Hu were a reformer or had been cooperative, the personal division may have been narrowed and they may have had cozier talks at Bush’s ranch. However, Hu has been obstinately uncooperative with Bush on the Iranian nuclear program and bilateral trade issues. Moreover, China’s dragging its feet on resolving the Korean nuclear crisis through its six-party talks was another factor that annoyed Bush. Why has China been only half-heartedly working on the North Korean nuclear issue? Bush surely knows that China and North Korea have had a solid military alliance by treaty since 1961, which exclusively targets the United States as their common enemy.


Hu Jintao really needs to think twice before he extends his "harmonious society" to the "harmonious world." If he insists on doing so and would like to have it done effectively, as his U.S. visit has indicated, he must first internally turn the Chinese society from disharmony to harmony by letting people enjoy basic human rights and abolishing the repressive communist rule. The days for Hu to make a correct choice and a difference are certainly numbered, as Dr. Wang warned during the historic White House ceremony.

Dong Li, a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University, is a China specialist and news analyzer for New Tang Dynasty TV.