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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Up against the great wall of China

November 22, 2009

John Garnaut, the Herald's China correspondent
Sydney Morning Herald
November 21, 2009

The world expected Barack Obama to win from Hu
Jintao concessions the Chinese President wasn't
in a position to deliver, writes John Garnaut.

Hours after Barack Obama landed in Beijing and
headed to the St Regis Hotel, a cavalcade of
black sedans travelled out the other way.

The Monday morning airport procession, against
the traffic, was led by China's security chief,
Zhou Yongkang. Without the customary fanfare, he
slipped out of China to meet an old Sudanese
friend accused of genocide in Darfur. Zhou's
three-day visit to President Omar al-Bashir
coincided with the US President's time in Beijing
with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
It was a vivid statement of how differently the
US and China might view the world when they are running it together.

Obama brought some of his heaviest hitters to
enlist China in confronting "the major challenges
of the 21st century, from climate change to
nuclear proliferation to economic recovery …
challenges that neither of our nations can solve by acting alone."

Over three days, Obama and Hu spoke positively of
each other's efforts but struggled to list
concrete achievements on any Obama priority,
despite nearly a year of focused preparation.
Obama and his team spoke bravely if not
convincingly about China being receptive to its
message on Iran, North Korea and Pakistan and
Afghanistan. Sudan never made it to the list. On
China's human rights both sides plainly disagreed.

"I underlined to President Obama that given our
differences in national conditions, it is only
normal that our two sides may disagree on some issues," said Hu.

There was nothing about Hu's demeanour which
suggested that he enjoyed his meetings with
Obama. But for the Chinese state, even if the
leaders failed to forge rapport or achieve policy
breakthrough, it was a priceless three-day
opportunity to manoeuvre a US President on their
stage and endlessly project the image that America was down and China was up.

By some accounts, China's single highest
diplomatic priority was not reducing the threat
of rogue nuclear weapons on its doorstep or
preventing the next economic meltdown, but
getting Obama to say, on Chinese soil, that
"Tibet is part of China", even though lesser
American officials have conceded this many times before.

In Chinese diplomacy, form and content can be hard to disentangle.

China is a "ritual state", explains Australian
National University China historian Geremie
Barmé, which is "tirelessly reassuring itself and
who is ever watching of its own stature and stateliness".

Elaborately choreographed spectacles like last
year's Olympic Games, the October 1 Military
Parade and this week's Obama visit are part of the fabric of Chinese politics.

"Whereas people may be galled by the nature of
party rule or government misrule in their
immediate lives, these highly codified rituals
broadcast via the electronic and print media
reinforce the sense that China is a rich and
powerful nation, one that has realised its national mission," says Barmé.

Of course, not all Chinese were impressed by
their "ritual-state" going to extraordinary
lengths to prevent Obama from engaging freely
with the Chinese public. To many, particularly
among the internet-savvy youth, the contrast
between the Chinese state's manifest insecurity
and Obama's natural confidence could not have been more instructive.

"They put a condom on the President of the United
States," wrote Wang Yukun at Sina, a popular website.

Obama handled Beijing's strictures with grace but
it wasn't easy going. Bashir, in Khartoum, found
security chief Zhou Yongkang a more obliging dance partner.

Zhou had taken with him a contingent that was almost as impressive as Obama's.

His Sudan entourage included Jiang Jiemin, the
boss of Petrochina; Zhang Guobao, the head of
energy policy at China's National Development &
Reform Commission; Wang Jiarui, head of the
Communist Party's International Department (a job
that has more influence on Chinese foreign policy
than the minister of foreign affairs) and Wu
Shuangzhan, chief of the People's Armed Police.

Zhou could not have made his visit to Sudan
without the party leadership considering how it
might affect the Obama-Hu Jintao spectacle in
Beijing. Ostensibly, however, he and Bashir were
simply getting down to business. They unveiled
the first Khartoum-Beijing direct flights, opened
a Confucius Institute, signed an agriculture
agreement and agreed to jointly pump yet more oil.

On Thursday night, long after Zhou had left
Khartoum and Obama had left Beijing, China
Central Television belatedly ran a two-minute
news story on Zhou and Bashir lavishing praise upon each other.

The world is familiar with how Obama's agenda in
China was constrained by his own domestic
politics. He had squandered political credits
with China by slapping tariffs on Chinese tyre
and other exports in order to mollify American
manufacturers. And China, it seemed, was
preparing to cut a climate change deal with the
United States that might have led to a legally
binding agreement at Copenhagen - something that
China sees as being in its national interest - but the US was not ready.

But Hu was also weighed down by domestic
political challenges. One of the biggest may have
been on display in Sudan this week.

Back in 1995 Zhou Yongkang was working his way to
the top of China's biggest oil company,
Petrochina. He had close connections with another
oil industry veteran, Zeng Qinghong, who happened
to be a powerbroker for the then president, Jiang
Zemin. Zhou and Zeng were the drivers and Jiang
was the decision maker behind China's hugely
controversial decision to exploit Sudan's oil
reserves at a time when Western companies could
not afford the political or reputation risk,
according to several Chinese oil industry and foreign policy sources.

This week, Zhou gave a modest account of that personal history.

"Fourteen years ago, then Chinese president Jiang
Zemin and you made the strategic decision to
start China-Sudan oil co-operation, and our
bilateral pragmatic co-operation has since
entered a stage of fast development," Zhou
recounted to Bashir, on the delayed CCTV report.

Bashir was quick to give Zhou some personal glory.

"You are the important promoter of the
Sudan-China oil project, the Sudanese people have
special affection towards you," said Bashir.
"Sudan-China oil co-operation not only brought Sudan oil but also peace."

The theme of Chinese news reports was the
continuity of Chinese policy despite leadership change.

Earlier, a Bashir adviser, Mustafa Othman Ismail,
had told Xinhua that the Sudan-China relationship
was a "model" for the world. He added that "there
had been no tensions and differences between
Sudan and China under different leaderships in both nations."

Zhou left Petrochina in 1998 and Jiang stepped
down from the presidency in 2002. But Chinese
institutions can be shaped as much by invisible
ties of patronage as official lines of power.

Sources in the Chinese and Western oil industries
as well as Chinese and Western foreign policy
strategists say Zhou continued to hold the reins
of China's oil industry for many years after his
official title changed. Some foreign policy
strategists go further, claiming an Oil Gang
drove the Chinese Government's more recent forays
into Iran's oil and gas fields and even
obstructed efforts by President Hu and others to
support international sanctions against Sudan and Iran.

These days, Zhou heads China's secret and public
security agencies as well as China's justice
system. He is Jiang's most important ally and
therefore a factional rival of Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao.

Another important Jiang ally, Li Changchun,
controls the realm of propaganda, media freedom and internet censorship.

A majority of generals on the Central Military
Commission - which controls the People's
Liberation Army - were appointed by Jiang and he
is said to remain the patron of some. The Chinese
military gets a large say in strategic policy
decisions, especially in areas of oil investment and conflict zones.

Unfortunately for Obama, and perhaps the world,
most of the concessions that Obama would have
liked from Hu happen to be on turf the Chinese
president does not confidently control.

Hu has to juggle the interests of factional
rivals, giant state-owned corporations and an
increasingly entrenched bureaucracy. Even if he
wanted to, he could not unilaterally commit
himself to what Obama appeared to put most effort
into -- a threat of sanctions against Iran.

"I would not say that we got an answer today from
the Chinese, nor did we expect one on the
subject," conceded Obama's deputy national
security adviser, Ben Rhodes, on whether China
agreed in principle to sanctions if Iran continued to misbehave.

Obama's first visit to China played badly with
his travelling press corps but the degree of
difficulty in what he was attempting was widely understated.

"I did not expect, and I can speak
authoritatively for the President on this, that
we thought the waters would part and everything
would change over the course of our almost 2½
-day trip to China," said Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs may have been in damage control but he also
had a point. The US cannot lead like it used to.
It has to give China a more proportionate say.
But both nations have huge adjustments to make
before anyone can think seriously about them
adroitly leading the world together.
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