Archive for the ‘Shanghai’ category

Obama Shanghai Town Hall: Mission Accomplished

November 16, 2009

I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to watch the live feed (via White House website) of the President’s town hall meeting with students in Shanghai.  I took a particular interest in this event because while serving as Consul General in Shanghai I frequently visited college campuses and engaged in similar exchanges.  the format  (minus any press interest) was similar; I’d start with 20 minutes or so of views on US-China relations (including whatever topic was hot at the time) and then open the floor to questions.  Based on those experiences here are my reactions to yesterday’s event:

1)  The students were more polite to the President than they were to me.  This is no surprise.  I am certain the participants yesterday had been warned to maintain a respectful and polite attitude and to stay away from inflammatory questions.  This reflects more than anything the sense that China would be judged around the world by the demeanor of the students at this globally aired event.  To try to embarrass the President of the US or put him on the spot would be considered poor manners and would reflect badly on China.  So the questions for the President were pretty soft, though the clever students did manage to get in a question re US policy toward Taiwan (couched as a question from a Taiwan netizen); one about US aggressiveness around the world (couched as a question contrasting China’s drive for a “harmonious society” with US greater comfort with “diversity”); and one on internet freedom (again, a question from a netizen, relayed by a student in the room).

In contrast, I found in discussions with Chinese students that given the chance without the glare of cameras they could be very pointed, posing questions such as: Wasn’t it US policies in the Middle East that brought about the 9/11 attacks?  Why does the US see itself as the policeman of the world?  (in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident) Why does the US spy on China; isn’t it true the US wants to contain and weaken China? Why is the US so protectionist and why does it impose so many anti-dumping penalties on Chinese products?

As noted above, no surprise that in a very public forum Chinese students stayed away from very direct questioning.  That said, the students in the room were among the best and brightest in the country and I was impressed (again, as noted above) in the way that they managed to gently slide in questions on controversial topics.

2)  I thought the President did a great job, especially on the human rights and information freedom issues (take that NYT!).  He clearly intended to show the audience back home that he would not shy away from raising these tough issues.  However, he did so in the most effective way possible, which can be summarized as follows:  “Here is the way we in the US think about [human rights] [treatment of minorities] [internet freedom]; we are not perfect but we think our values in these areas have been central to our success as a nation; we are not out to force our views on other countries, but we do think that basic principles of freedom and human rights apply everywhere and we will continue to speak out in support of that view.”  In other words, his responses did not contain a direct rebuke to China but rather conveyed a humble expression of why we think our values/system is good for us and why we think these basic principles are universal.

3) Tiny nitpick of interest:  in responding to the question re Taiwan the President repeated our commitment to a one China policy and the Three Communiques.  Readers who know the intricacies of US policy on this issue will note that he did not refer to the Taiwan Relations Act, which is usually part of the mantra by USG officials when they mention the Three Communiques.  I took this not to be some intentional signal but rather a function of information overload for the President.  As insiders know, the language the USG uses on the Taiwan issue is exceptionally complex and nuanced.  In fact, the President clearly stumbled a bit when at one point he referred to Taiwan and then started to say “… and the rest of China”, but unsure if that was the right formulation, caught himself and said “…and the People’s Republic”.  So to me, he had done a great job of absorbing the sensitivity attached to the language surrounding Taiwan and dropping the TRA reference was, I think, not a signal but a sign of the limits of even his prodigious capacity to master complex issues in very short time spans.

The bottom line:  my goal in talking with students was not to enter into a debate nor win them over to my point of view.  Rather, it was to show them that the US government had a thoughtful, basically friendly approach to China, even if we did not agree on all issues.  I think the President conveyed very much the same message yesterday.


Expo Errors

May 10, 2009

The joy of blogging is the ability to air your views in an unrestrained way.  No supervisors, lawyers, or editors to review your work.  On the other hand, this makes it easy to generate lots of misinterpretation as you opine on issues you don’t understand.  Others will, I am sure, ding me as I post along my merry way.  But from time to time I see something written by someone else that similarly calls out for a reality check:

Adam Minter writes a blog called “Shanghai Scrap”.  It’s pretty interesting overall. However, he has decided, mistakenly, that he understands the challenges of putting together a US pavilion for the Shanghai 2010 Expo well enough to have identified the culprits in the ongoing sad story of this effort.  The culprits, he tells us, are the key members (Ellen Eliasoph, Nick Winslow, and Frank Lavin) of the State Department approved non-profit entity working to raise funding for the Pavilion.  His most recent post on this is at:

Full disclosure requires that I note that Ellen Eliasoph and her husband (Ira Kasoff (who gets a silly and totally gratuitous mention in Minter’s post)) and Frank Lavin are friends of mine (I don’t know Nick Winslow).  But I also hasten to note that, unlike Adam Minter, I know a lot about the process of approval and fundraising for a US pavilion based on my time in the US government and contacts I have had with a couple of groups vying to get State Dept. approval for the US Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo over the past two years.

None of us are perfect and I won’t argue that the approved group (Ellen, Nick, and Frank – all working pro-bono) have done everything perfectly.  But what Minter (and other outside critics) don’t know is the story of the almost impossible conditions that approved group has been working under.

The real problem lies in the bowels of the State Dept. where working level lawyers and some public diplomacy officers over the last couple of years have thrown up obstacle after obstacle to the US Pavilion effort.  It is as if some involved at the working level were pursuing their own foreign policy.

First was the long, long delay in approving a group to spearhead the effort.

After that, the challenge was fundraising:  Want to raise money from US companies?  We need an extensive government vetting process (which rejected a number of blue chip firms for reasons never made clear).  Want the support of major Chinese companies active in the US?  Nope, they are involved in nefarious activities or otherwise ineligible.  Want the Secretary of State to issue a letter to the US business community urging support for this high priority project?  Gosh, we (lawyers) need to think very, very long and hard about this since we don’t want to have it appear that our Secretary is trying to fundraise (even though such generic letters are common for other projects).  (Note:  this last hurdle has finally been overcome with issuance of a letter by Secretary Clinton.)

Secretary Clinton and her senior advisors understand the importance of the US Pavilion.  They are pushing back hard and making some progress.  But it bothers me to see Adam Minter (and some others who have been quoted in the press), knowing nothing about the legal, bureaucratic, and policy complexities the approved group is wrestling with, suggest that a different approach or set of actors could magically get the US Pavilion up and running.

One thing that impressed me over 25 years of working on China policy in the government was the huge number of experts not wrestling with a problem in the real world who had “brilliant” and “simple” solutions to that issue.  Turns out the less you understand a problem the easier it is to devise solutions to it (though not to succeed in implementing them).

Having been on the receiving end of such “brilliant” analysis, I just feel compelled to vent on behalf of Ellen, Nick, and Frank here.

Strategic Thinking?

March 19, 2009

Where is our strategic vision when we need it?

China is hosting the next World Expo (what used to be called a World’s Fair) in Shanghai. It starts in May of 2010 and runs for six months. Seventy million people are likely to visit, the vast majority of them up and coming middle class people and (current and) future leaders from China, with many others from around the world. Each of the major countries of the world will be present with an impressive physical presence in the form of a significant pavilion and with an array of cultural and commercial programs.

Did I say all the major countries of the world? Oops: all but the US, unless things start to move very quickly. By law the US government (USG) cannot spend public funds to support a US Pavilion at such events (short-sighted in my view, but guess we have to live with that). All the USG needs to do is: 1) select a non-profit group to lead the effort (done at last, very late in the game), and, 2) throw its weight behind that group with public pronouncements on the importance of the effort, as a way of stimulating the necessary private sector funding.

There is a long, tangled, and depressing tale here, but the short version is that: (a) the Bush Administration lacked the vision to move decisively to get the ball rolling; and (b) the Obama Administration has yet to take this on in the way it should.

Is this crazy or what? Did I mention 70 million people visiting? Incredible opportunity to put the best face forward for the US at the major public event in the region (bigger BY FAR in every dimension than the Olympics)? Did I mention no US government money involved?

Think about it: Secretary Clinton’s appearance on an Indonesian music video show was a huge hit and (appropriately) applauded by observers who know we need to be rebuilding our global image. And it’s not just the legacy of the past eight years of US foreign policy. Today global economic turmoil is fueling increasing nationalism and protectionism, especially in Asia. Ok, now think about 70 million visitors, with 6 months worth of programming on US culture and commercial activities. Useful?

So, where is the big USG push on this? As best as I can figure out, some at senior levels in the Administration do get it and are trying to move forward. Why have they been stymied? Beats me, but someone should get this moving quickly.

What’s needed? To start, a major public push by President Obama (I think this does merit (rhetorical) attention from the President), Secretary Clinton, Secretary Locke, and others emphasizing to the private sector the importance of this effort. No bailout here; no US government funding guarantees. Just op-eds, letters, and phone calls, so corporate leaders and foundations in the US understand the considerable upside for them and the country.

The above is not intended to let my good friends in the private sector off the hook. A number of companies are putting in substantial funding for their own, corporate pavilions at the Expo. This is great, but they, and the many firms that have not committed to the Expo, should realize that in the long run, money which supports a positive image of the US in China is a good commercial investment. A first rate US Pavilion will make a positive contribution to this goal. And don’t forget, programs at the US Pavilion that highlight the US way of life can help illustrate themes such as the value of market driven innovation, transparency in government rules and regulations, and, yes, the continuing vitality of a market-based economy, etc., thereby supporting key US business goals in China. Finally, 140 million eyeballs on your logo and products in the US Pavilion is not a trivial marketing opportunity.

For this major, global event to come and go without a respectable US presence would be a crime. Let’s hope the strategic planners of the USG and private sector recognize and seize this opportunity.

NOTE: The folks who are organizing the US Pavilion effort have established a non-profit entity and are contributing their time on a pro-bono basis. They have the formal blessing of the State Department but lack the big push they need from USG and private sector. Best place to go to get more info on their effort is their website: