Agam's Gecko
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Three comedians and a straight man: Obama, Berlusconi, Medvedev, Hu. Best friends forever.
Photo: AFP

t often seems remarkable to me how readily some countries and leaders will embarrass themselves on the world stage, while seemingly oblivious to the way certain of their antics will be seen by reasonable observers. Even more amazing sometimes is the way these entities will then frequently judge themselves as having scored a great victory over an opponent or success with an issue, while convincing no one except apparently themselves. Leaders and officials from countries with a high dependency on propaganda are particularly prone to this, but not exclusively.

One could find dozens of examples of this from just the past year over the Tibet - China dispute. However many times the Dalai Lama, or elected Tibetan officials in exile, made conciliatory and logical statements of their position (consistent for decades already), Chinese officials would immediately come out with statements misrepresenting the Tibetan position (frankly, shamelessly lying about it) and launching into shrill denunciations and "people's war" rhetoric that one would have better expected from a Red Guard 40 years ago than from a spokesman for a modern country in 2009.

I'm pretty sure that after one of these PRC press conferences, they all go into a back room and congratulate each other on winning the round with their tough talk. The journalists write up their accounts of the harangue, and the readers come away with the correct perception that something akin to the Cultural Revolution is currently in effect over that poor country, Tibet.

In South Africa, the government's refusal of entry to the Dalai Lama is still a hot topic weeks after it became public (most hits on my rss search feeds are still coming from that country). By most accounts, the majority of South Africans are disgusted with their leaders over this issue. The government had originally claimed that "no invitation was extended," and that therefore, "the question of the visa doesn't exist." Faced with the proof that an invitation had been extended, they then claimed that His Holiness did not even apply for the visa since there was, "no evidence that the Dalai Lama is desirous of entering South Africa..."

This was clearly also a lie. He properly submitted a visa application after being invited by fellow Nobel laureates, and it was rejected. The government then asserted that this refusal was not due to Chinese pressure — until the admission of Chinese pressure and threats of dire consequences by a Chinese embassy official made that excuse inoperative.

Chinese embassy and consular officials have been quite busy lately. Besides threatening South Africa, quite a few of them were stalking the halls of the California legislature a few weeks ago, lobbying against a broadly supported bipartisan resolution on Tibet. China must have a big stick over California, as the bill was withdrawn. Similar pressure on New Zealand against a proposed visit by the Dalai Lama has apparently failed, as the NZ Prime Minister nipped it in the bud by declaring his happiness at receiving the Tibetan leader in his country.

Whether these various efforts succeed or fail, the outcome for China's international image is the same. The heavy-handed tactics serve only to diminish China's face, yet the Party comrades invariably feel they've won something.

The response to the revelations of massive computer hacking and thievery against more than 100 countries should be equally embarrassing for any sentient Chinese citizen. What's the official strategy? As usual, deny and denounce without really addressing the question.
Speaking at a media briefing, Qin did not directly respond to questions about whether the network exists and if its actions are supported by the government. Instead, he said Beijing opposes criminal activities that compromise computer networks and criticized the report for claiming otherwise.

"China pays great attention to computer network security and resolutely opposes and fights any criminal activity harmful to computer networks, such as hacking," Qin said. "Some people outside China now are bent on fabricating lies about so-called Chinese computer spies."

"Their attempt to tarnish China with such lies is doomed to failure," he said.
Of course, the evidence was all published in a public report, and none of that was answered here. It's so much easier to just declare it "lies" about "so-called" spies. One can present all the proof one wants, and they'll just say you made it all up to "smear China". Which is exactly what they did when the video came out showing their colonial soldiers beating bound Tibetans on the ground with truncheons (which you can see in our right sidebar, or view the full ghastly evidence (again, seriously nauseating content warning) here. "Lies! It just didn't happen!" they say. Those Tibetans made it up, they've become proficient with PhotoShop in exile, or something.

Another coverage of Qin Gang's briefing doesn't come across any better, even with a slightly different translation. Here he hooks into the thievery network's GhostNet moniker and the spectre of computer viruses doing the Communist Party's work for it, launching into horror movie mode with a different ghost and a very different type of virus.
"Nowadays the problem is that there are some people abroad avidly concocting rumors about China's so-called Internet espionage," spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news briefing.

"There's a ghost abroad called the Cold War and a virus called the China threat," Qin continued, breaking into English-language phrases to make his meaning clear.

"People possessed by the ghost of the Cold War constantly issue this China threat virus." [...]

"The attempts of these people to use rumors to vilify China will never succeed," said the Chinese spokesman Qin.
They won't have to succeed as China's own leaders, officials and spokespeople do enough to vilify China all by themselves. For whatever reason, they just can't see it.

Now, while communist dictatorships certainly seem more inclined to fall into this type of hubris, it can happen to anybody who doesn't take his job seriously. A leader who has perhaps been praised a bit too much can come to believe that, "Whatever I do or say, it'll be just terrific." Even so, I was greatly surprised to learn that, after receiving several very thoughtful, symbolic and unique gifts from Gordon Brown, President Obama gave the British Prime Minister a bunch of American DVD movies (which are not even viewable on European players).

If he was embarrassed, he didn't show it. Naturally it would be a good lesson to remember the next time such a situation came up — for example, "Put a little more thought into it next time." Well, there have been a couple of big shindigs over in Europe, and the Obamas have been wowing them. Barack has been dispensing mass O-gasms to adoring throngs in three major cities, travelling with a posse of 500 (plus four speech-writers and twelve teleprompters). But his gifts have not gained in thoughtfulness.

When I read that he had presented the Queen with an Ipod, I thought it was an April Fool's story. When it was further reported that he'd loaded it up with video of her American visit as well as his own speeches, I realized it was actually true. The excuse soon came: he hasn't yet been able to staff the White House protocol office. I suppose that must mean that he sent a go-fer down to Woolworth's to pick something up, not too expensive (we have a lot of banks and car makers to buy, you know).

The pop media couldn't get enough of the imminent meeting of royals last week, endlessly speculating on what Michelle would wear (sleeveless or ?). Would she curtsy for Her Majesty? And all the strict protocols to remember — under no circumstances does one actually touch the Queen (except for very gently receiving her handshake, if it's offered), things like that. American presidents are never supposed to bow to anyone, or so they say. Would Barack do a small, barely perceptible head dip to show his respect without bowing? CNN for one was just ridiculous with all this fanboy stuff.

Michelle with Queen
Photo: Daniel Hambury / AP
They met, and there was the barely perceptible head dip of respect. Michelle seemed exceedingly comfortable and familiar with Her Majesty. Well don't forget, the White House has no protocol office to speak of, so she probably wasn't informed. (It has since come out that President Obama didn't know there was supposed to be a White House protocol office, which is why he didn't staff one. The State Department has a whole section for protocol affairs, but Barack didn't know it existed and evidently Hillary didn't tell him.)

The Bow
Photo: John Stillwell / AP
Everybody who is anybody was at the palace that evening, as they prepared for the G20 summit with some high level schmoozing. Wait a minute, what's this? President Obama greets King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with a deep bow from the waist? How will this play back home?

Easy. They simply won't report it. The same media which plastered pictures of President Bush and the Saudi king holding hands on every front page in the country, isn't interested in this one. Never mind that, as anyone who has spent time in eastern cultures will tell you, close friends will often display their friendship that way and there's nothing sexual about it. I recall my best friend in Aceh, now deceased, warning me that his good friend was coming to visit and would I be embarrassed if he held his hand? He didn't need to explain, as I already understood from earlier experience. But he knew that most westerners have a hang-up about hand-holding, and can't get past seeing it as a gay thing (which is exactly what the pop media was trying to do to Bush).

President Bush was given a lot of grief over the hand hold, which was just silly. Two people joining hands in no way signifies subservience, but rather equality and friendship. A deep bow like the one above signifies nothing other than subservience. Barack should know better.

Interestingly, there was a similar situation when President Clinton met Emperor Akihito in 1994. Mr. Clinton had "inclined his head and shoulders forward" and it became a big hairy deal. "Administration officials scurried to insist that the eager-to-please President had not really done the unthinkable." The president's "tilt" was described as something of an "improvisation," and not strictly a "bow-bow."

Well, that was a close one. This one, though, doesn't appear to be a tilt or an improvisation, and seems quite striking — in that one doesn't often see people bow this deeply (outside of a newly-hired junior Japanese executive meeting the CEO of his corporation for the first time). And, as it almost immediately followed the ¾" dip he gave the Queen, this is rather remarkably.... incredible. Wai Hot Air for the old NYT article (you can see a short video of both the dip and the bow on this page).

The Gift
Original caption: "A member of U.S. President Barack Obama's staff carries a gift from Britain's Queen Elizabeth to his car at Buckingham Palace in London April 1, 2009."
Photo: Reuters
While I was looking for those pictures I stumbled across something that seems even more lacking in class. It's just a shot of a White House aide carrying away one of the gifts the Queen had given to President Obama. I wanted to take a closer look, and turned the image around so the gift was right side up. Here's the detail:

The Gift
Now I'm no expert, but I highly doubt that when the Queen of Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries gives a gift of state to another head of state, that she would scrawl "From Queen of England" over the embossed cover. The only possible explanation is that an official of the new hopenchangey administration (or Barack himself?) wrote that. So they wouldn't forget who it came from? A further clue is that, during his joint press conference with Gordon Brown, Obama referred to him as the Prime Minister of England. He doesn't really get the distinction between Great Britain and England.

If I'm all wet on this one, I'm sorry. Maybe she did write that, but I very much doubt it. Perhaps it's a shame that, after the DVD's for Brown and the Ipod for Her Majesty, the self-conscious almost-tilt for her and the very deep bow for the Saudi king, that this is the most logical explanation. If you give something very special to the new American president, they write your name on it so they won't forget where it came from.

Did he raise Tibet at all when he met Mr. Hu for the first time? Apparently so. An unidentified official said that the president expressed "concern" from a human rights point of view, and "hoped" for progress in the dialogue with the Dalai Lama's representatives. Well he's the master of hope, so let's hope his hope pays off with a bit of freedom for the Tibetans.

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