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Mixed Chinese Reaction to VP Bidenís Visit

Stephanie Ho | Beijing August 22, 2011

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden heads to Japan, via Mongolia, after a four-day trip to China. There have been mixed reactions to his effort to persuade the Chinese government and people that their share of the U.S. debt is safe.

One of China’s leading papers, the Global Times, conducted an online survey that asked people if they are optimistic about U.S.-China relations after Vice President Joe Biden’s visit.

Of the 13,000 responses recorded by Monday, some 93-percent said Biden’s visit did not make them optimistic.

Internet surveys are not scientific gauges of public opinion, but this snapshot contrasts sharply with the official version of the visit. Chinese leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice President Xi Jinping, publicly and prominently expressed confidence in the health of the U.S. economy.

The issue is significant because China is Washington’s largest foreign creditor, with more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt holdings.

Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong, says both governments needed this visit to at least publicly look good.

Shi says if China and the United States could resolve disputes over currency or the South China Sea, that would be very good - but he says that is impossible and so that just setting a good mood can be considered a success.

But Shi also expressed concern that many Chinese people felt that Biden talked too much.

Shi says by repeatedly talking about the U.S. economy, Biden showed that the U.S. government is indeed worried about America’s economic situation. Shi says Biden betrayed what some Chinese read as a lack of self-confidence.

Despite efforts at presenting a harmonious relationship, Elizabeth Economy, at the Council on Foreign Relations, says she thinks the closed-door discussions were more confrontational and less progressive than Washington would like.

“Usually it’s the United States that has the laundry list of issues that we want China to take action on. You know, increasingly, with the debt crisis, I think China is going to have a list of things maybe that will then allow for some bargaining and negotiation to take place. But I think that is really the big trouble - that we have issues that we want to discuss that the Chinese simply have no interest in discussing,” Economy stated.

Economy says she believes this is the main reason there have been few concrete results recently in Sino-American relations. “I think the proof is in the pudding, and if you look at the achievements in the China-U.S. relationship, the real achievements over the past - doesn’t really have to be over the past few years - but over the past five, ten years, you’ll find that in many ways, they are unfortunately somewhat negligible,” she said.

In his speech in Sichuan Sunday, Biden publicly pointed to one issue that is constantly contentious.

“Maybe the biggest difference in our respective approaches is our approach to what we refer to as human rights. I recognize that many of you in this auditorium see our advocacy of human rights as, at best, an intrusion, and at worst, and assault on your sovereignty," he said. "I want to tell you directly that this is not our intention.”

In a question and answer session after his speech, Biden said the worst conflict is an unintended one. He called for greater openness and communication between the United States and China, as a way to reduce the chance that a misunderstanding could lead to an unintended conflict.

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