By Clay Chandler
November 11, 2017

If you read only one thing about Donald Trump’s visit to China this week, I recommend this essay on Chinafile by veteran China hand Orville Schell.

Schell—former dean of University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, current director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, author of numerous insightful books about China—travelled with Trump through Asia on assignment for Vanity Fair. His Nov. 10 post from Beijing describes in exquisite detail China’s efforts to welcome Trump with pomp and circumstance:

There were acres of red carpeting; two military bands; a goose-stepping honor guard of soldiers, sailors, and airmen (a new affectation to such welcomes); a phalanx of flag- and flower-waving elementary school students (who practiced their ‘spontaneous’ regimen over and over again, led by a stern directrice, before the two leaders arrived); and a twenty-one gun salute fired off from artillery pieces lined up adjacent to Chairman Mao’s Memorial Mausoleum where the waxy remains of the former revolutionary lie in uninterred repose under a crystal sarcophagus for the viewing pleasure of provincial tourists.

Trump and his wife Melania were greeted at the Beijing airport by China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi. There was a marching band, soldiers standing at attention, a phalanx of “smartly dressed children waving miniature Chinese and American flags” who “jumped up and down as Trump’s motorcade passed.” They dined with Chinese president Xi Jinping in the Forbidden City. Trump is the first foreign leader accorded that honor since the founding of the Peoples Republic in 1949.

The US president showed Xi a video of his granddaughter, Arabella Kushner, singing in Mandarin and reciting classical Chinese poetry. Xi, according to Chinese state media, praised her performance as worthy of an “A+.”

For the duration of his visit, Trump refrained from criticizing China’s leaders for discriminating against Western companies in the China market. He seemed even to absolve China for past unfair trade practices. Before Trump’s departure, the two countries announced business deals worth $250 billion—although most of those deals will take years to implement or were, in any case, already in the works.

The Washington Post declared Trump’s Beijing visit a “festival of flattery.” Jim McGregor, veteran China watcher and senior executive at consultancy APCO, said China had “played Trump like a fiddle.” China, he said, was “under the operative notion that, with Trump, flattery will get you everywhere.”

Schell’s view is more nuanced. He frets that Trump, despite his boasts about being a brilliant negotiator, is “so over-infatuated with his courtship, so hungry to ingratiate himself, and so eager to be bathed in acceptance that he had ended up being taken.”

But Schell also acknowledges the possibility that Trump’s praise for Xi may be a ploy. It is theoretically possible, he concedes, that the Trump White House “actually does have a stratagem that calls for Trump to continue making-nice and bonding with Xi at the top of the power pyramid to create as much ‘mutual trust’ as possible… while at the same time allowing other administration officials to begin pushing much harder on specific concrete issue areas on other levels below.”

Schell thinks the latter scenario is unlikely. My view, for what it’s worth, is that global business leaders would do well to give Trump the benefit of the doubt—at least for the next few months.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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