Xi Jinping

On the eve of their summit, China and US are playing to script

Philip Cunningham says if the petulant - and predictable - war of words between China and the US over June 4 is any indication, it's unlikely this week's summit will see any breakthrough

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 10:06am

On the eve of the much-anticipated Sunnylands summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, government mouthpieces in the US and China had a brief but revealing spat. Not surprisingly, given the mutual penchant to spin the truth for political reasons, each side smugly portrayed itself as being in the right and the other in the wrong. Furthermore, each side reverted to type, the US as the holier-than-thou finger-wagger, China as the self-styled victim of conspiratorial slander.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki's statement that "the 24th anniversary of the violent suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on June 4 prompts the United States to remember this tragic loss of innocent lives" might seem a reasonable statement at first glance, but it's full of holes. Who is remembering what? The "United States"?

The power of the message gets lost in the hypocrisy of the pot calling the kettle black

Let's assume it's the collective wisdom of the State Department talking. It has a team of spinmeisters who present the world in a way that is intended to be highly favourable to US interests. Its information-manipulation teams skilfully ignore, downplay or whitewash the "inconvenient truths" when it is politically expedient to do so, and June 4 is made quick work of, if not thrown under the memory bus, when other bilateral issues rise to the fore, whether it be trade, terrorist concerns or a presidential visit to Beijing.

The government of China has a lot to answer for in regard to the brutal crackdown of June 4, 1989. Especially to its own people. But it does not take marching orders from, nor does it have to answer to, the US State Department.

A smart response would have been to study the message, but ignore the messenger. Instead, the response was petulant if not borderline hysterical. "We urge the US side to discard political prejudice, correctly treat China's development, immediately rectify its wrongdoings and stop interfering in China's internal affairs so as not to sabotage China-US relations," said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei .

China is far from being the only country that reflexively cringes when the US pretends to hold the high moral ground. Fatigue from the finger-wagging is understandable if one considers how craven and corrupt the source of the latest sanctimonious outburst is. The US State Department is the diplomatic organ of a powerful war machine that has rained millions of bombs on innocent people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries since Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon first conspired to cover up their crimes through an opportunistic political realignment in 1972.

"We renew our call for the Chinese government to end harassment of those who participated in the protests and fully account for those killed, detained, or missing," said the US State Department. This is a reasonable statement, of the sort that is, and should be, raised on a regular basis by non-governmental organisations, journalists and concerned individuals. But the power of the message gets lost in the hypocrisy of the pot calling the kettle black.

"A clear conclusion has already been made concerning the political turmoil that happened in the late 1980s," said China's foreign ministry. This is a lie. The debate continues to rage within. Far from being clear, and far from having achieved a conclusion, Beijing's official line is a wobbly work of obfuscation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs might like to bluff and convey the sense that its current "talking points" are the last word on the matter, but that's just a double deception - lying to oneself in order to sound more convincing to others. The controversy of June 4 is unresolved and the massacre that took place that day remains unrecognised and unmourned. It is not over.

Sunnylands is an opulent and elitist estate hidden from public view, the kind of place where heads of state can enjoy the perks of high office without having to put on a White House (the people's house) show for the hoi polloi. The sleek, discreet estate has a checkered political history; it was mostly a refuge for right-wing luminaries who enjoyed the political support of media magnate Walter Annenberg, but one visitor stood out. Nixon retreated to Sunnylands after being ignominiously forced out of office under the threat of impeachment. The fung shui of Sunnylands is unknown, but in political terms it's a haunted retreat for the elite.

This is not a problem for Xi; after all, Nixon is still hailed as a "statesman" in China, and his right-hand man, Henry Kissinger, is still at the top of Beijing's VIP list. And it's probably not a problem for Obama either, whose eagerness to be chummy with predecessor George W. Bush suggests that the defining spirit of America's most exclusive club - current and former residents of the White House - is more about self-regard, egotism and intoxication with power, than principles and historical questions of right and wrong.

If the bilateral pow-wow at the opulent, yet politically spooked, Sunnylands estate produces a few faux "down-to-earth" sleeves-up photo ops, but no tangible truth-telling between the world's two prime powers, it should come as no surprise.

The US and China are not only increasingly on a par in terms of economic power, but are also coming to resemble one another more in terms of spin power and information control when it comes to the question of where the truth lies.

Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon