Why did Chinese premier Wen Jiabao choose to publicly humiliate Barack Obama at Copenhagen? In their eyes, and those of much of the world, he has lost face, and with it, power and influence. While getting widespread play overseas, this story has been kept very quiet by our disinterested, nonpartisan media (I haven’t seen it mentioned in any major U.S. outlet).
After promising to meet the Messiah at 7:00 p.m., Premier Wen stiffed him in favor of a meeting with the leaders of India, South Africa, and Brazil. Rather than wait, a no-doubt infuriated Obama stalked into the room in question and demanded, “Are you ready to see me, Premier Wen?” No word on Wen’s reaction, though he did submit to a discussion on the spot that evidently sealed the release of the immortal and glorious Copenhagen Quasi-Agreement on Climate Change.
So with Barack Obama, we’ve reached the point where the leader of record of the most powerful state in history has become a man you can casually stand up. But the question remains, why?
There are a number of reasons why the Chinese might take a cavalier attitude toward an American leader. China is the chief foreign holder of American debt, which may well have created an impression of the U.S. as a beggar nation on the level of a failed African republic. (I strongly suspect that words were exchanged on this topic during Obama’s recent visit to China, though we’re unlikely ever to learn about them in detail.)
There’s also the matter of race. As is true of most Asians, the Chinese sense of racial superiority is cultural and innate. This is a people who refer to Caucasians as “ghost shadows”; what they think of American blacks is probably best not dwelt upon.
Then there’s the deep aura of unseriousness that Obama has generated around himself. Though essentially incalculable, this factor is undeniable and will grow in importance and impact as time passes.
But there’s one event in particular that very likely played a part — the fact that, only a few weeks before, Obama publicly and notoriously bowed to the emperor of Japan.
Japan and China have a lengthy history, very little of which can be termed benign. They have always been rivals, often acting at cross purposes and usually at sword’s point. But the past century of Sino-Japanese relations has been little short of horrendous.
Japan’s militarist government occupied Manchuria in 1931 and proceeded to menace the Republic of China for several years afterward. In June 1937, as a result of a contrived confrontation known as the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident”, Japan escalated to open conquest. Occupying Nanking in December of that year, the Japanese army carried out a city-wide massacre that in little more than a month resulted in over 250,000 deaths. So brutal were Japanese actions that they could not, in a pre-Auschwitz world, be referred to directly in news accounts. Sixty years passed before the story was completely told in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking
(Chang, a less than stable personality in the first place, was so deeply affected that she later committed suicide, after telling friends that she could not get the images of the killings out of her mind.)
For nearly a decade Japan occupied vast areas of China, a period marked by further massacres, atrocities, and casual violations of the human spirit. It’s safe to say that, but for the even viler activities of the Nazis, the Japanese occupation would stand as one of the peak moments of human cruelty in the modern era. (It’s undeniable that Japanese human experiments in their Chinese and Manchurian prison camps were fully as loathsome as those of the Nazis.)
Though the Chinese don’t discuss the matter, their attitude toward Japan and the Japanese can easily be imagined. Particularly since Japan, unlike Germany, has only in recent years reached the point of admitting to “irregularities” in its occupation, much less issuing an apology or offering reparations.
So here comes Obama, as ignorant of all this as a little lamb.
Many will recall the uproar that surrounded Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to a German cemetery at Bitburg
, instigated by the existence of SS graves within line of sight of the ceremony. The attitude of the Chinese to Obama’s bow must be similar. From that point of view, Wen’s behavior should be taken as a rebuke, not to the United States so much as to Obama personally.
Which only goes to underline the reason why diplomatic protocol exists in the first place — to exclude through ritual actions all possibilities that error, misunderstanding, or personal pique might interfere with matters of state. Obama has yet to learn this. His insistence on winging it, on reinventing established practice on his own terms, is potentially far more than simply embarrassing. It could be actively dangerous. His refusal to go by the rules may well have cost him the opportunity to pose as Savior of Gaia in Copenhagen. It may cost him — and the country — far more at some future time.