- Barack Obama - China - diplomacy
Obama tackles Chinese misgivings in Shanghai student speech
US President Barack Obama addressed an assembly of university students in Shanghai on Monday in an effort to engage the younger generation and allay the misgivings some Chinese citizens harbour about US goals in the region.
US President Barack Obama addressed an informal assembly of students in Shanghai on Monday in an effort to engage China’s younger generation and allay the misgivings that some Chinese citizens harbour about US goals in the region.
“We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation,” Obama told the town hall-style gathering. “But we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expressions and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights.”
Students were selected from universities throughout Shanghai to attend the speech, which was streamed live on local TV but with a several-second delay. It was also streamed live on the White House website.
“It’s a very concerted effort to really try and reach out to China’s young generation,” a generation that Obama has noted is internet savvy and much more aware of the outside world, says Newsweek correspondent and FRANCE 24 contributor Duncan Hewitt.
In a contribution to Foreign Policy magazine published last week, Cheng Li and Jordan Lee of the Brookings Institution's China centre said Obama has already exhibited a “more respectful US posture” toward China than his predecessors. Ever since the 1989 Tiananmen student uprising, US leaders have approached China with rhetoric that has often been a “shrill manifestation" of otherwise legitimate concerns on human rights.
China, in turn, views this as arrogance on the part of a Western superpower. “Such condescension has fuelled the growth of a hyper-nationalistic segment of China’s younger generation,” say Li and Lee, noting that many older Chinese also remain convinced that the United States is seeking to “keep China down”.
Obama’s speech seemed orchestrated to address these perceptions.
“We do not seek to contain China’s rise,” Obama told the assembly. “On the contrary, we welcome China as a strong and prosperous and successful member of the community of nations.”
“I think the message will go down fairly well with Chinese young people, who certainly have some suspicions about the US,” Hewitt said of Obama’s speech. He notes that Obama was “extremely careful” to emphasise that the United States and China were moving toward a “positive, shared” future.
Hewitt says there has been a perceptible shift in the bilateral balance of power in the past few years.
“We are seeing a much more assertive China in economic terms,” he says. After all, Obama arrives as the visiting head of state of a country that has "borrowed large amounts of money from China” via massive Chinese investment in US Treasury bonds, a circumstance that has given Beijing more leverage in its relations with Washington.
“China is much more calling the shots than we’ve ever seen on a previous US presidential visit to China,” Hewitt says. “That, in a way, reflects China’s increased importance in the world.”
More formal diplomatic challenges await the US president when he meets with President Hu Jintao for talks that are expected to include the delicate issue of how to push for a new round of disarmament talks with both Iran and North Korea. Washington hopes that China can bring renewed pressure to bear on both nations to renounce their nuclear ambitions where the West has so far failed. Obama is also expected to seek China’s support on tackling climate change.