United States President Barack Obama's participation in yesterday's town-hall meeting with Chinese youth in Shanghai sharpened the contrast between him and his predecessors on several levels.
Strong rebukes over human rights dominated Bill Clinton's initial trip to the country. George W. Bush's first visit was highlighted by poignant accusations of currency manipulation by the country he called a "strategic rival".
Obama's tone went beyond exuding a more sophisticated finesse in addressing China - that is, striking a better balance between tough talk and sweet talk - but also a fundamentally different attitude about relations.
Instead of preaching US models to the Chinese students, he said, "each country must chart its own course", and the US should not assume its system is "good for everyone else".
While these declarations came with an important caveat - the US regards some values as universal and will "speak out" on their behalf - he said his country should address disagreements through dialogue, with "humility" and "understanding that we are not perfect".
Much can also be inferred from the event's format, a microcosm of Sino-US relations in that it resulted from lengthy and ultimately successful bilateral negotiations.
The town-hall meeting was likely honed to push forward Obama's point that cooperation and deeper understanding are not only mutually reinforcing but also must extend beyond governments to be "rooted in the people".
While expanding the US president's interactions beyond the realm of China's officialdom, the platform was orchestrated to show Obama came not only to speak to China's youth but also to listen to them.
While the global situation and Sino-US relations have dramatically changed since the visits of previous US leaders, many of the same concerns linger.
But the comparatively judicious approach and attitude Obama demonstrated yesterday suggests a greater likelihood of resolutions to tensions and challenges, new and old - and to those that are yet to arise.
(China Daily 11/17/2009 page3)