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Censorship's Silver Lining

By now the numerous slights both deliberate and accidental during Chinese President Hu Jintaos visit to Washington are well known: mixing up Taiwan and China when introducing the National Anthem; the Falun Gong heckler; President Bush unceremoniously tugging President Hu around by his coat-sleeve; administration officials dozing through Mr. Hus statements. What's less understood, though, is the official Chinese reaction or really, lack of reaction --to these gaffes.Hu Visit.jpgThe slip-ups, and their possible implications, have all been widely discussed in the US and international media. But in the Chinese press, they havent been mentioned at all.In the West, the censorship has been seen as a measure of how serious these insults are. The argument is that the assorted incidents are so shaming and embarrassing that keeping the incident off Chinese screens was to save Hu Jintao from humiliation, in the words of one Beijing-based analyst.Maybe. But the far more important point this censorship communicates is the value China places on its relationship with America, and the direction the government wants that relationship to go.Chinas government could have easily used these incidents to spur anti-American, patriotic sentiments within the population. They didnt hesitate to do so a year ago, when demonstrations over revisionist Japanese textbooks engulfed the nation, or 7 years ago in the aftermath of Americas bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In both of those instances, it would not have been difficult for the government to keep the population from learning of the issues. However, stirring up nationalist, anti-Japanese or anti-American sentiments suited the governments agenda at the time, and it didnt hesitate to do so. However shaming or embarrassing last weeks gaffes may have been, they pale in comparison to having your sovereign territory (the Embassy) bombed and offering only a few student protesters in response. But in the past, the government was willing to swallow the shame of these events in the interests of its agenda. They almost certainly would do so again if it furthered their plans few things will rally a population to support you like rallying them against someone else. That they have chosen not to, and have rather gone to great efforts to hide the gaffes, indicates a desire to maintain and improve their relationship with America.Broadcasting the insults would almost certainly have given fodder to hardliners within China to rail against the slap in the face. And its easy to imagine the reaction of our own China hawks to any anti-American demonstrations that may have resulted. If Chinas censorship of last weeks events indicates the governments desire to keep the ball away from these hardliners on both sides of the Pacific, it may be the silver lining to last weeks exhibition of Americas inept diplomacy and Chinas continuing free speech issues.[My thanks to Ms. Lauren Keane in Beijing for helping develop this analysis.]-- Matthew Tompkins

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