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When International Tensions have a Silver Lining

January 28, 2011

Michelle Obama’s red dress was surely a highlight of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States last week. But, given the sociohistorical context of Hu’s visit, it wasn’t the only thing turning heads. China and the U.S. have experienced some tension over a range of issues in recent years (headlines about China on major US news media include criticisms of the undervalued renminbi, China’s role in North Korea and the Southeast Asia, and its relationship with Taiwan and the Dalai Lama), so all eyes were on Washington to see how Obama and Hu would address (or not address) these issues.

In his speech at a luncheon with leaders of American business and foreign-relations organizations (reported as “U.S. friendly organizations” on Chinese state media and featuring notable attendees including Henry Kissinger and Gary Locke), Hu addressed a number of these issues that China and its strategic partner, the United States, disagree on. Interestingly, instead of directly responding to these criticisms and proposing solutions, Hu described them as positive factors for future collaboration between the two countries.

For instance, in his comment on the trading relationship between China and US, instead of explaining China’s stance and policies on its currency, Hu projected China as a “contributor” to the US economy and highlighted how much made-in-China products have saved Americans’ dollars. In his speech (given in Mandarin and translated by yours truly unless otherwise noted) Hu says that “In the past 10 years, nice and affordable Chinese products have saved over 600 billion USD for American consumers.” He also points out how many job opportunities China has created for the countries where its imports came from: “In the [past] ten years, China has on average imported products worth of 687 billion USD every year, creating over 14 million employment opportunities for these countries and regions.” See? China’s economic policy isn’t a bad thing at all. Instead of even directly acknowledging criticisms, Hu completely reframes China’s economic policy as a good thing for the relationship between China and the United States.

Regarding China’s relationship with North Korea, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia, Hu does the same thing. Rather than admitting to differences between China and the U.S., Hu described the relationship between the two powers as “maintaining close communication and coordination.” He says that the two countries “together play a constructive role in promoting regional peace and development, mutual trust between neighboring countries, and mutual collaboration.” Rather than having conflicting opinions and interests, China is constructed as a collaborator with the U.S., and the two countries “together” are exerting positive impact over peace and development in these regions.

Taiwan and Tibet are probably among the most difficult topics in dialogues between China and the U.S. In his speech, Hu did not attempt to defend China’s stance on these issues or directly clarify China’s policies. Rather, he framed these issues as matters of “China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity…core interests [that] touch upon the national sentiments of the 1.3 billion Chinese.” In so doing, these issues are represented as something that Chinese people also care passionately about, just like Americans that see this as such a hot-button issue.

Hu sums up all this drawing together over differences when he says “We should…not be affected by one accidental incident, not be restrained by occasional incidents, we should promote mutual trust, remove obstacles, work together to construct a mutually-trusting and mutually-beneficial Sino-Us partnership.” In Hu’s speech, the disagreement in the Sino-US relationship is constructed as one that has less to do with ideological differences and a lot more to do with “accidents” of communication that lead to good things being presented as bad. His speech implies that the solution is simple: better communication between nations and to always look for the bright side to things that seem like problems. Will this work? Is it really that simple? Will the renminbi and Taiwan stop being issues if American news outlets stop questioning them? Either way, implying that all of these issues are mere problems of communication buries the fact that there may be legitimate issues at stake.

If you want to know more:

  • My analysis of how the relationship between China and the U.S. is constructed in Hu’s speech draws on Michael Halliday’s “Systemic Functional Linguistics.” My post primarily looks at the social actors identified in texts, and their relationship construed discursively through verb clauses. This can be a good book if you are interested in knowing more about this method.
  • China’s state media has only a partial English translation (from which the quotes in my last two paragraphs are drawn) of the original speech delivered in Mandarin Chinese, and I couldn’t find any transcriptions in U.S. media as of press time. Therefore, as mentioned, the rest of the translations here are my own. You can find the original transcription in Chinese here.
  • For more analyses in English on Chinese political discourses, Discourses of Cultural China in the Globalizing Age would be my recommendation.

Wenhao Diao is a PhD student in Second Language Acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University.

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