In Asia, “face” is everything. Standards of conduct and ritual are strictly defined, as they are in the diplomatic world. Image is managed to a precise degree.
Yesterday, Michelle Obama’s office announced that she would not be attending the Presidential Summit in Rancho Mirage this weekend in order to spend time with her children as the school year closes. This is a very bad mistake for our country’s face.
Xi Jinping is the recently installed General Secretary of the CCP and President of China. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a superstar singer in China with what has become a massive global impact. Her stardom was earned, and she is herself a major celebrity. They have been on their first trip to the Western Hemisphere visiting Mexico, Costa Rica, Trinidad, and now the United States.
There are serious issues under discussion; North Korea, the trade imbalance, the fate of nations.And there is serious kabuki necessary to the greasing of the political and cultural wheels. Face time is a big part of this.
Xi is under pressure from China’s military to support an expansionist agenda aimed at securing the nations raw materials and to a large order, the respect of the world, especially the United States. China is our country’s largest business partner and our debtor as well as the largest country by population in the world. Their culture is over 3,000 years old and highly defined even now.
And Michelle Obama has just caused Mr. and Mrs. Peng to lose face. By not attending the summit she has denied Ms. Peng an opportunity to shine on the global stage with one of her most important counterparts. She has denied her the dinners and shopping and photo ops and the bonding that comes with these meetings.
Especially in Asia, the medium is the message. And the message that can be crafted in the media not only in China but throughout Asia is that Mrs. Obama either doesn’t care or has deliberately offended Mrs. Peng. During World War II Eleanor Roosevelt met times with Madame Chiang at the White House and at Hyde Park to show the friendship between China and America.
Since then, the first ladies of China have been in the background with the exception of Jiang Qing, of Gang of Four fame, and now Madame Peng.
Having spent much of my time in Asia and with my somewhat inadequate understanding of the culture and politics thereof, even I know how Americans can be completely insensitive to deeply held customs and protocols. With a massive State Department protocol section and her own Protocol Officer, Mrs. Obama must surely have known the importance of simply showing up and being nice. Smile for the cameras and go home.
This is a message almost all of our First Ladies have understood and most wives and many husbands do as well. make an appearance and make nice to help your spouse do their job, whether it is with the boss and his wife or ones colleagues at work or at a school function. It is common courtesy.
You can bet this will be reported not only in China but throughout Asia. While the Chinese President is winning friends and influencing people our President and his wife have committed a very serious faux pas.
And at a time when we are so dependent upon cooperation with China and other countries as our president has chosen that the United States is just one among many countries, we are especially dependent upon the good will and friendship of countries like China.