China Power

How Ordinary Chinese Saw the Xi-Obama Summit

Grand government pronouncements appear to have been largely ignored by the average Chinese.

In the wake of the recent summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama, two interesting phenomena could be observed in China: media inconsistency and a sharp distinction between political pronouncements and the focus of ordinary Chinese.

Though the Chinese government had high hopes for the summit, state-owned media outlets such as People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and the Global Times failed to come up with anything profound or insightful in their coverage. Instead, they relied on enthusiasm, with lines like “the Sino-America relationship is entering a new era” proving very popular. One specialist said, “The two leaders set the tone for the bilateral relationship for the coming decade,” apparently forgetting that Obama at least will be out of office in four years, with all the possible changes in White House policy that may imply.

The sugarcoating was designed to convey the message that Beijing was enjoying better relations with the Washington. For more politically aware readers, however, the claims ring hollow. Most realize that improving the world’s most important relationship will require more than an informal handshake.

The cliché-driven coverage in fact served only to undermine the significance of the summit, reducing what should have been a positive step in building the image of China’s new leader to mere propaganda.

Then there was a rather odd inconsistency. The first summit meeting and subsequent press conference were broadcast live on Phoenix TV, which is based in Hong Kong, with reporting direct from its U.S. station. The same effort was also made by Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, in the form of a live video broadcast. Yet nothing live was shown on China Central Television, the dominant state broadcaster. All viewers got were a few words by the announcers at the beginning of the hourly news without even an image, and then later a five-minute video segment pre-edited by the network’s journalists in the U.S. By that point, it was hardly news at all.

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At any rate, the interests of the general public in China were not necessarily in tune with the official line.

While authorities tried to focus on the summit’s political significance, the average Chinese was more concerned with gossip: why Michelle Obama stayed home, what the price tag of the Maotai shared by Xi and Obama was, and whether China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan would visit with her daughter, who is studying at Harvard. These items were hugely popular topics for China’s social networks.

The Maotai story came courtesy of Hong Kong media. The interest lay in its price, more than RMB2000, or about $300. Maotai is considered the national liquor of China and is frequently given as gifts to government officials. Or at least it was: Xi had recently cracked down on high living by government officials. Some wags joked that with the summit stamp of approval, Maotai might be about to make a comeback in government circles.

On a more sober note, Xi spoke at the summit dinner of his experience as a rural laborer during the Cultural Revolution. It was a personal insight rare enough to catch the attention of the public. As the Cultural Revolution was instigated by Mao Zedong, it has long been regarded as a taboo issue. Yet many senior government officials, especially those who had helped Mao build the new China, were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Among them was Xi’s father. The young Jinping himself was sent to the remote countryside in China’s northwest to labor for years.

In referring to his experience at the summit, could Xi be signaling that his administration will be more open to reflecting on the Cultural Revolution? That’s how many Chinese are interpreting it.

That might not be the message the authorities wanted to send, but it seems ordinary Chinese have other priorities.