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U.S. and China: same summit, different views

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The U.S. side at the China summit had hoped for specific 'deliverables'
  • Chinese side is more concerned with the symbolism of the U.S. visit
  • Serious issues such as trade, Taiwan, Tibet, human rights and currency manipulation still divide the two

Editor's Note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- Summits often produce nothing more than expectations. The meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and China's President Hu Jintao showed how different those expectations can be.

From the U.S. side there was the expectation of substantive "deliverables" - diplomatic jargon for real results. From the Chinese side, there was an expectation that, by going to Washington, its standing and status abroad would be improved.

While there was little in the way of breakthroughs, in the world of summitry where perception is all, it was the meeting itself that emerged as the message.

A few days before President Hu Jintao embarked on his summit meeting, I asked China's vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai whether we could expect any concrete results.

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There would be many, Cui told me, ticking off trade, energy, environment, and people-to-people exchanges, among others.

"But I guess the most important deliverable would be clear guidance to the future development of the overall relationship," he said.

The message from America, meanwhile, is that it accepts China as a global power.

"The U.S. reiterated that it welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater global role," read a joint statement issued at the end of Hu's visit. This echoed what President Barack Obama said Wednesday during a joint news conference: that China's "peaceful rise is good for the world and it's good for America."

What it signaled is that, despite differences, Washington can do business with Beijing.

There were concessions. The two sides argued robustly but agreed politely to disagree on human rights and other contentious issues. "Each country and its people have the right to choose their own path, and should respect each other's development model," the joint statement read.

The two countries announced a batch of economic deals, including $45 billion in new contracts for U.S. exports, including 200 Boeing aircrafts, to China. The deals are expected to support some 235,000 jobs in the U.S., according to the White House. But they will not be enough to solve trade imbalance.

They also agreed in principle to work towards "a world without nuclear weapons" and towards the resolution of the Korean and Iranian nuclear issues.

But serious issues -- trade, Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, currency manipulation -- divide the two.

The U.S. did not get a guarantee that the Chinese currency would be allowed to appreciate. Nor did it get any public pledge on the release of imprisoned human rights activists or improvement in China's human rights record.

How to judge Hu Jintao's visit? It depends on who you ask. Americans, analysts say, tend to set higher bars to measure whether a state visit is a success.

"They want specific things -- more market access, Chinese movement on the currency, cooperation on North Korea and Iran -- and if at some point they do not see those things happen, then it's viewed as a non-success," said Patrick Chovanec, associate professor at Tsinghua University.

It's much simpler for the Chinese.

"It's not like they are going to Washington looking for specific things from the U.S.," said Chovanec. "They're mainly looking to avoid too much criticism, to avoid a big blow out, and project a generally positive image. Then it is a success."

James McGregor, senior advisor at APCO Worldwide, an American public affairs consulting company, agreed: "All Hu Jintao needs is a smooth visit with no embarrassments."

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A Chinese government official explained the country's approach. "We define success of summits in terms of symbolic gestures," says the official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the matter. "We pay more importance to the overall atmosphere, not immediate concrete results. We care about tangible deals too but we expect them to come sooner or later."

For the Chinese side, he said, the symbolism that comes with the pomp and protocol during the visit are just as important as the multi-billion dollar deals.

China expects respect through state visits. "We want to see the Chinese president given the status and respect, the treatment due the leader of a important nation," said the Chinese official.

The Chinese also want to change the minds of Americans about what is going on in China and why they should care about it.

A big responsibility falls on the Chinese media to convey this message. Says Tsinghua University's Chovanec: "Nothing makes the Chinese media more excited or more nervous than an official state visit, with this kind of pomp and circumstance. Given the disagreements that have taken place on a whole range of issues in the past year, it's very important for China to project a positive image to the United States. Just as important is the image that the Chinese leaders project back into China -- about whether or how they are respected abroad."

The visit is also designed to polish Hu's image as an international statesman, standing side by side with Obama, fielding pointed questions from a press corps.

The positive images were burnished by the state-controlled Chinese media, which filtered out the minor protests and diplomatic snubs that occurred during the visit. Instead, the local media focused on the red-carpet welcome, the 21-gun salute and the lavish White House banquet.

Also filtered out were reports of international media on irritant issues. CNN's reports that referred to human rights issues, or showed anti-China protests, were selectively blacked out in China.

The Chinese media reported that a discussion of human rights took place during the visit, but they largely avoided mention of President Hu's comments on human rights.

"A lot still needs to be done," Hu acknowledged in answer to a reporter's question during a joint press conference. Answering another question, Hu said: "China also respects the universality of human rights, but at the same time we also believe we need to take into account the differences in culture when talking about human rights."

It is the only time that I can remember when President Hu publicly acknowledged the "universality of human rights", but hardly any news organization here picked it up.

Summits are, after all, all about perceptions - both at home and abroad.

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