David Caragliano

What’s Really Behind China’s Tabloid-Style Coverage of Obama’s Asia Trip

Obama plants a kiss on Aung San Suu Kyi. (Via Weibo)

What do people in China really think about U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Southeast Asia? A glance at Chinese mainstream and social media depicts conflicting narratives, with topics ranging from President Obama’s now-infamous kiss with Aung San Suu Kyi to geopolitical power dynamics between China, Myanmar, and the United States.

Kisses, flirtatious eyes, and other silliness

One of the most viral related posts on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, is a series of close-up images of Obama embracing and kissing Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a press conference in Yangon. Probably not coincidentally, another popular image is a photo of Obama “making eyes” at Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Some Web users ridiculed these outward displays of affection, including the nationalist publication Global Times. Atop a picture of Obama posing with a seemingly shocked Suu Kyi, the Global Times’ Weibo account (@环球时报) played up the theme of romantic pursuit, with the line: “Myanmar is independent … Obama should not assume that he is ‘all that.’” The Chinese phrase for ‘all that,’ zizuo duoqing, connotes unearned swagger and, perhaps, unrequited affection. The phrase repeatedly appeared in mainstream Chinese press and was widely forwarded by microbloggers.

But for others, President Obama’s actions appeared to embody a fresh and exciting new kind of politics taking root in nearby Myanmar. Weibo user @马都浮云 wrote, “The light of democracy shines on Myanmar!” Indeed, these unrehearsed images strike a sharp contrast with the pictures of the staid seven-man Politburo Standing Committee that made its debut in China last week.

Puncturing the official narrative

Microbloggers that got past “the kiss” for Suu Kyi and “the eyes” at Shinawatra noted stark contradictions between the reporting in Caijing, a historically reformist magazine, and official state-run media outlets, such as China Central Television (CCTV) and People’s Daily.

Behind the online silliness lies a deeper anxiety about the U.S. and China’s respective roles in the international community. (Via Weibo)

Consistent with an account offered in the U.S. media, the Caijing blurb accompanying photos of Obama kissing Suu Kyi read: “Obama’s visit generated significant excitement among the people of Yangon, and from the airport to the city center several thousand people gathered along the streets to welcome Obama.”

But CCTV and People’s Daily suggested the opposite. People’s Daily reporters claimed not to see much in the way of welcome signs or banners and not to feel a noticeable buzz of excitement. The official report played down President Obama’s presence in Myanmar, emphasizing that the visit lasted only six hours, and was one that Suu Kyi initially did not endorse. More provocatively, the report suggested that “some Myanmar people” have interpreted Obama’s decision not to visit the new capital, Naypiydaw, as a purposeful jab to “avoid giving [Myanmar’s people] too much face.”

Microbloggers were quick to point out the inconsistency. “Once again, Caijing sings a different tune,” noted @霸气的捣乱. “[CCTV] said that the response of the people of Myanmar was flat and the reception of the government of Myanmar was lukewarm.”

The truth behind the chatter

Of course, the proxy battles over Obama’s glad-handing and between dueling media reports ultimately strike at power dynamics among China, Myanmar, and the United States. The Global Times ran a November 20 editorial musing on the implications of Myanmar’s opening up and possible democratization. “Sooner or later Myanmar was going to open up to the outside world… but the extent of any change to come is certainly limited.” The rationale behind this assertion boils down to economic analysis. “Southeast Asia’s economic reliance on China is greater than its reliance on the U.S. This trend will continue … Obama has promised [Myanmar] US$170 million in aid, but unless he can duplicate that amount every month, this bargaining chip cannot change the fundamental nature the Chinese-Myanmar relationship.”

While trade and investment are critical components of a country’s power and influence, the perspective set out in Global Times focuses almost single-mindedly on dollars and cents. A comment on the “kiss” photo by @剑佩萧 unintentionally echoes this sentiment: “The world’s most expensive kiss; Obama uses $170 million to buy a kiss from Ang San Suu Kyi.”

When it comes to Myanmar, the diverse, sometimes trivial images and debates on display in China’s blogosphere beg a larger question: How do softer factors–such as values, aspirations and identity–stack up against economic incentives in determining political dynamics among Asian nations? Put more bluntly, can great powers simply buy their friends? China’s rise has been awe-inspiring, but China has not yet articulated a compelling narrative about what it stands for within a broader community of nations.

As to whether cameras will ever capture new Chinese leader Xi Jinping embracing Aung San Suu Kyi at some point over the next 10 years; only time will tell. If it happens, it will be the culmination of a complex process involving China’s wealth, its influence, and its role as either exemplar or cautionary tale on the world stage. After President Obama’s visit ends this week and the tabloid-like chatter recedes into the background, it will be time to kiss the simple answers goodbye.

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David Caragliano

David Caragliano is a program manager for Asia at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
  • Archie

    Lol, I can see Xi Jinping standing 2 metres away from Aung San Suu Kyi and doing this awfully awkward wave, saying “bai bai” as he slowly backs away. Embrace, with Chinese characteristics.

  • saf

    “its role as either exemplar or cautionary tale on the world stage.”

    Isn’t this rather binary outlook an example of the “simple answers” that we ought to eschew?

  • lalala

    And they did the same thing with Patraeus…