Formal, scripted and wooden: with a few exceptions, this has been standard protocol for meetings between US and Chinese leaders in the past.
So it was a bold move, especially for new Chinese president Xi Jinping, to dispense with the usual rules at a “shirtsleeves” summit with his counterpart Barack Obama in California last week.
Luckily for Xi, the gamble seems to have paid off. “Two meetings, one dinner, a walk together without ties and a gun salvo…. Xi and Obama communicate face to face. Awesome,” wrote one user on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
“Love his wisdom. Love our president,” complimented another.
Others compared the informal confab to Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to Beijing in 1972 or Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 tour-de-force in the US, when he unexpectedly donned a ten-gallon hat.
For many Chinese, mind you, the politics was of less interest. Much more of a concern was why Michelle Obama didn’t join her husband for the meet-up. Many netizens saw her decision to stay behind in Washington as a snub to China’s “First Lady” Peng Liyuan who accompanied Xi to the Caribbean and Central America in the run-up to the summit, as well as joining him in California.
Quite why Michelle Obama would have felt the need to snub Peng went unsaid. In a handwritten note sent to Peng she explained she wanted to spend time with her daughters at the end of the school year. But that did little to placate the more prickly Chinese netizens.
“Michelle is the first lady but was absent from this summit. Our country pays attention to etiquette. No matter what her reason is we can say she is a bit lazy and lacks good demeanour,” wrote one disgruntled blogger. “Her absence made us feel sad. Friends cannot meet each other without a welcome from the hostess,” sniffed another.
It wasn’t just Mrs Obama who came in for caustic comment. Xi’s physique came in for mockery too, especially when photos of a 50-minute walk with the US president were published. “They look like Winnie the Pooh and Tigger taking a stroll together,” wrote one weibo user (later an online image showing a resemblance between the two leaders and the AA Milne characters was the most forwarded image of the week). The jokes kept coming, especially when netizens spotted that Xi’s translator had made a mistake by telling Obama that he swims 10,000 metres a day instead of 1,000. “I swear I saw Obama take a look at Xi’s Winnie belly and say ‘interesting’,” laughed one wag.
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