Obama Spills On Dealings With China In New Memoir

In his book "A Promised Land," the former U.S. president talked about his first official state visit to China and what he got wrong.
November 17, 2020, 6:18pm
Obama and China
A younger Obama tours the Great Wall. File photo from AFP

The first installment of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s highly-anticipated memoirs just dropped following a press blitz of interviews, excerpts and reviews.

“A Promised Land,” the first of two volumes, was released on Nov. 17 as part of a lucrative joint book deal with former First Lady Michelle Obama that was worth a reported $65 million.

The reviews for Obama’s more than 750-page doorstopper of a book have been mostly glowing, with many noting his talent as a writer combined with a reluctance to reveal too much about himself. But the former American leader does have plenty to say about China, including wishes that he had been tougher on the authoritarian regime there during his two terms in office.


The Obama administration’s perceived weakness on China was one reason many dissidents and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong were more supportive of President Donald Trump rather than Obama’s former running mate and now President-elect Joe Biden.

But Obama also had eight years of dealings with China compared to Trump’s four. Here are some of his observations about what he saw and experienced in interactions with America’s biggest political rival.

On gathering allies

Obama entered office with the U.S. still mired in the Middle East. He wrote that the administration of George W. Bush’s “total absorption” in that part of the world, along with the financial crisis, “led some Asian leaders to question America’s relevance in the region,” he writes. 

But China’s economy was important to the sputtering global economy, and he needed the help of other countries in the region to help nudge Beijing towards better practices. What he sensed reads like a prophecy for what would become the geopolitical playing field in the region.


“The one thing we had going for us was that in recent years China started overplaying its hand, demanding one-sided trading concessions from weaker trading partners and threatening the Philippines and Vietnam over control of a handful of small but strategic islands in the South China Sea. U.S. diplomats reported a growing resentment towards such heavy-handed tactics - and a desire for a more sustained American presence as a counterweight to Chinese power.”


China’s “impressive surveillance capabilities'“

On a cold November day back in 2009, Obama visited China - a rare destination for a U.S. president during his first year in office.

His inaugural Chinese state visit also served as his first, personal trip to the country despite having spent some of his childhood in the region in Indonesia. 

Often regarded as one of the world’s most aggressive nations when it comes to cyber espionage and digital spying, China’s surveillance capabilities did not go unnoticed by Obama, who came well prepared during his state visit. 

Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival in Beijing (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival in Beijing. Photo: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

“Even across oceans, Chinese surveillance capabilities were impressive,” he wrote. “We were instructed to leave any non-governmental electronic devices on the plane and to operate under the assumption that our communications were being monitored.”

He added that extra precautions were taken by his security team on the ground, who even erected a big, blue tent that “hummed with an eerie, psychedelic buzz”, designed to block out and prevent any trace of tracking or hacking by Beijing. Hidden cameras in the hotel room were also assumed and some members of his security personnel even resorted to showering in the dark to avoid detection. One member of the team walked around his room naked as a test to see if he was being monitored. “Out of pride or in protest wasn’t entirely clear,” Obama said. 

He also described a bizarre encounter by his commerce secretary Gary Locke, with two Chinese gentlemen in suits and a pair of housekeepers who mysteriously showed up to search - and meticulously clean - his room. 


Simmering tensions

Obama wrote in great detail about strained relations between officials in Washington and Beijing.

“On the surface, the relationship we’d inherited (with China) looked relatively stable,” Obama said. “But beneath the diplomatic niceties lurked long simmering tensions and mistrust - not only around specific issues like trade or espionage but also around the fundamental question of what China’s resurgence meant for the international order and America’s position in the world.” 

But he reiterated that avoiding conflict was not “just luck” and it all boiled down to mutual respect and “strategic patience” between the two countries. “Although the Chinese Communist Party maintained tight control over the country’s politics, it made no effort to export its ideology,” Obama said. He talked about how he once encouraged America to “take a page from the Chinese playbook”. 

“If we wanted to stay number one, we needed to work harder, save more money, and teach our kids more math, science, engineering - and Mandarin.” 

In hindsight

But things have changed greatly since 2009. Consulates in both countries have shuttered and state-affiliated educational partnerships between Chinese and overseas universities that once innocently promoted Chinese culture and the teaching of Mandarin as a language have since been labelled as “malign influence campaigns on U.S. campuses and classrooms.” 


“China could throw its elbows around when it felt its territorial claims being challenged, and it bristled at Western criticism of its human rights record. But even on flashpoints like U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Chinese officials did their best to ritualize disputes,” Obama wrote. “This strategic patience had helped China husband its resources and avoid costly foreign adventures.” 

With China under increased scrutiny for Belt and Road infrastructure plans, its encroachment on Hong Kong, and its continued expansive building in the South China Sea, the era of ritualized disputes may be over.

At America’s expense

Obama didn’t go into detail about his meetings with then-Chinese president Hu Jintao. But without any political jargon, he summarized his feelings on China in one clear line. That they “didn’t fit neatly in any camp”. 

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao escorts Obama past an honour guard Saul LOEB / AFP

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao escorts Obama past an honour guard. Photo: Saul LOEB / AFP

He acknowledged China’s strengths (“lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty was a towering human achievement”) as well as the bigger threat that came along with such success, that would ultimately hinder and threaten the United States.

“The fact remained that China’s gaming of the international trading system had too often come at America’s expense,” Obama said, recalling the flood of Chinese-made goods into the country that made flat screen TVs cheaper and kept inflation rates low - at the price of depressing U.S. worker wages. 

“To pull ourselves and the rest of the world out of the recession, we needed China’s economy growing, not contracting. I just had to make sure that we didn’t start a trade war that tipped the world into a depression, and harmed the very workers I’d vowed to help.”