United States President Barack Obama received an avalanche of criticism from the Western media for his recent trip to Asia.
The uproar began when Obama bowed to Emperor Akihito of Japan and continued to build throughout his trip. By the time he walked on the Great Wall, critics were lashing out at Obama for failing "to stand up to Beijing in defense of core American interests and values".
These criticisms are reminiscent of the condemnation that Guo Songtao (Kuo Sung-t'ao, 1818-1891) received while serving as the first Chinese resident minister to the United Kingdom and France. Appointed by the Qing court, Guo traveled to his new post by sea, leaving China in December 1876 and arriving in London at the end of January 1877. When he submitted his credentials to Queen Victoria, Guo was said to be amazed by the courtesy with which the Queen received him.
During his short sojourn in Britain, Guo visited factories, schools, and government institutions. He was the first Chinese to try the telephone, noting in his diary that numbers came through clearer than chit-chat. Guo was fascinated with the things he experienced, but was dismayed at how far Qing Dynasty China lagged behind the UK. He marveled at the progress England had made in a span of a few decades and lamented China's decline "in the blink of an eye".
He learned that the UK had banned opium, and was disgusted at the fact that Chinese were still squandering their wealth on the "spiritual relief" provided by opium, which of course had been introduced by Britain.
In his official journal, Guo reported what he saw and suggested that the royal court introduce reforms that would make China stronger. He fully expected these reforms to be implemented; those who try to stop progress will never succeed, he argued.
But Guo's reports were too candid for the officials and scholars at the Qing imperial palace.He was condemned for not standing up for the values of the Qing court. His journals were burned and the woodblocks required to print them destroyed.
Today, Guo is considered one of the pioneers in China's opening up. His recommendations are considered forward-thinking, and his surviving diaries are the focus of academic studies.
The world has undergone tremendous changes since Guo resigned his post in the UK in 1879.
The universal freedom and human rights championed by the United States have played a huge role in the history of the past century. However, people the world over have reason to be skeptical of the motives of those promoting freedom and human rights. The United States' high-handed foreign policy and its failure to regulate its own financial sector have tarnished its reputation and made even its most principled pronouncements suspect.
In today's world, no country - not even the sole surviving superpower - can command other countries to discard their traditions and their chosen path toward growth and prosperity. The world faces an unprecedented array of problems, from climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics to terrorism and nuclear proliferation. The future of the earth is literally at stake.
In tackling these challenges, the nations of the world have no choice but to cooperate. As they do, heads of state should spend more time coordinating their policies and less time arguing about the values and ideologies that divide them.
All this brings us back to President Obama.
His behavior toward Emperor Akihito and his positive approach to talk with Chinese President Hu Jintao did more to solve the world's problems than a "defense of core American interests and values" possibly could have. Along the way, he made friends instead of enemies.
(China Daily 11/26/2009 page9)