Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The other day, I asked Brian if they were planning an inauguration party at the Bridge. Sure enough. Predictably, Obama is wildly popular among Beijing expats. And Bush is just as unpopular among the same crowd. Let it be said first that history judges a man by more than just his popularity rating. And the crowd of young expats I saw last night could hardly be considered an objective audience. I was talking with one young expat awhile ago, who was railing against Bush, and I responded by listing several Republican presidents and asking him what he thought. Of course, he walked right into the trap, describing every one of them as practically the devil incarnate. I said, "You know what? You just don't like Republicans." Still, this is clearly an historic inauguration, and there is little question that George W. has made some serious mistakes that have embarrassed Americans, and lowered respect for America in the eyes of an ever more critical world.

The first Black president. Well, sorta. The talk about slaves last evening seemed rather remote from the privileged White heritage that is Obama's. He is not descended from slaves. Still, he is Black, and he is President, and that would not have been possible just a few years ago.

For all his criticism of the Bush legacy during the campaign, he was quite gracious in thanking Bush for being so helpful during the transition. Young people today don't make much of that. They think it is just the normal politeness that one president accords the next. But I remember the last transition, with Clinton aides removing the "W" from typewriters in the White House, and leaving obscene messages on the answering machines. And Obama returned the courtesy, seeing Bush off in his helicopter. I don't think I've ever seen that before.

There was one line in his speech that caught my attention: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," a clear repudiation of the Bush legacy. Bush deserves more than to be remembered for his cavalier disregard for human rights in the prosecution of the war. Nevertheless, it is the "fly in the ointment" (Ecc. 10:1) that discolors everything else he did.

The news report on CCTV-9 was quite favorable, with an added statement from the Chinese government declaring their willingness to cooperate with the Americans. There is some concern in China about what an Obama administration might mean for international trade. When I first came to China, and heard people criticizing Bush, I used to tell them, "If the Democrats get into power, you guys will be crying for Bush." I hope I was wrong. For all his faults, Bush's economic policies were good for China. Campaign rhetoric would suggest that perhaps the Democrats will not be as easy going about the huge trade imbalance between China and the United States. The front page of the China Daily yesterday featured a picture of African businessman Mark Ndesandjo, who lives in Shenzhen. I say "African," but in fact, his mother is American. His father is from Kenya. He is Obama's half-brother. Don't know how much influence he will have on Obama's foreign trade policy, though. I would think perhaps they hardly know each other.

The editorial in the China Daily this morning gave some voice to the worry:With the inaugural address delivered, the oath of office taken, time starts now for Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th United States president, to deliver.

The unusual state of the economy may help mitigate unrealistic hopes on immediate changes, though change was what he promised, and change was what brought him to where he is.

At home and abroad, people are trying to figure out what would come first on his to-do list. The ailing economy is in dire need of fixing. But he can expect plenty of patience on that. Nobody anticipates an instant turnaround. But perhaps not on Iraq and Guantanamo.

Curiosity may not be as strong here in Beijing about that list in its entirety. So far the guesswork here concentrates on how President Obama will position ties with China. Given the popular American eagerness for a break from the Bush years, many wonder, or worry to be precise, whether the new president would ignore the hard-earned progress in bilateral ties. After decades of dramatic ups and downs, the once volatile relations are just beginning to show signs of stabilizing.

To many, former president Bush's eight years at the helm of US foreign policies were full of disappointments. The yet-to-be-justified war on Iraq, for one, proves an outstanding discredit to his country and himself. President Obama vowed to put an end to that. Which is correct, and overdue.

Yet let us be fair and honest - the Bush years were not devoid of merits. Anchoring relationship between the world's single superpower and the largest developing country is no easy job. But the Bush administration managed it. The Strategic Economic Dialogue, for instance, has turned out to be an invaluable platform for meaningful high-level communication. Now, people wonder if its fifth session in Beijing early last month was its last.

We hope not. Unless President Obama is after "whatever not Bush".

President Obama has portrayed himself as a pragmatist, and empiricist. Then he should not shut his eyes to the most precious diplomatic legacy of his predecessor.

Sino-US relations have been fragile and vulnerable to politicizing, owing to both Cold-War ideologies and conflicting interests. Judging from his previous words, President Obama may see China as a competitor his country will have to deal with. The next question is how.

Interdependence between the two economies is beyond description. Particularly during this recession. From the financial crisis to regional stability to global warming, they need each other anyway, even if unwillingly. So zero-sum games are simply out of the question.

The good news for Obama is that his predecessor, through eight years in office, has laid a decent foundation for one of the world's most influential relationships.

That is a fine bequest he should generously embrace.

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