China’s President Hu Jintao paid an official visit to the United States this past week. His last visit, in April 2006, did not go smoothly. A protestor for the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is persecuted in China, interrupted the arrival ceremony. Then the Chinese national anthem was announced as the anthem of “The Republic of China.” Messing up China’s official name (The People’s Republic of China) would not have been that bad except The Republic of China is the official name of Taiwan, the independent nation that China still claims as sovereign territory. That takes a small wording mistake to the level of big protocol problem. Later on, President George W. Bush pulled President Hu by his sleeve when the Hu began walking off the podium the wrong way. Hu and the Chinese were also upset by the lack of a state dinner, which his predecessor Jiang Zemin received in 1997.
In a New York Times article last week , Kenneth G. Lieberthal, who was an advisor on China for President Clinton said “the Chinese are extremely protocol conscious…they will readily cite you past precedent; often their records were better than ones I could access.” For this visit, the Obama Administration gave Hu a state dinner. China’s human rights record has been a thorn in the side of American politicians for years. There was a particular discomfort about the idea of President Barack Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, bestowing this high diplomatic honor on the President who has the 2010 winner Liu Xiaobo in jail as a political prisoner. For those reasons this state dinner was risky for Obama. However, diplomatically, it was necessary.
Our relationship with China is an incredibly important one. This is most obvious on an economic level. We do a large amount of trade with them, and they own large amounts of our debt. However our relationship is also important at the United Nations (UN). China has veto power in the Security Council (as do the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and France). This means they are one of the nations that can unilaterally strike down anything the United States tries to accomplish in the United Nations. While I do not endorse ignoring China’s horrible human rights abuses, one has to realize that that is not our only priority when it comes to our relations. In the realm of diplomacy there are a lot of things the Chinese could ask of the United States, in that context a state dinner for their President is not a difficult compromise to make. Going forward we need a solid relationship with China to deal with a wide variety of issues both bilateral (our trade relationship) and multilateral (North Korea). A solid relationship could also help put us in a position where we can more effectively deal with China’s human rights abuses. So as uncomfortable as it might be to give a President who jails political dissidents, among other things, a state dinner it is a small discomfort in the context of what it could do for Chinese-American relations and the good it can achieve down the line.
Samantha is a co-Editor-in-Chief and co-Founder of The Nine Ways of Knowing and a sophomore at Barnard College. She is majoring in Political Science.
Photo courtesy of LA Times.