Stealing from Zakaria

The Oriental Fish Market, Presidential Poverty, and the Maotai Solution

Fareed Zakaria, eminent columnist (Time), commentator (CNN), author of several barn-burner books on foreign policy, Washington foibles, Presidential peccadilloes and the world in general, was recently criticized for stealing (the polite word is plagiarizing) from a lowly New York Times writer. Nevertheless, all was forgiven and Time mag suspended him for just one column, with the realization that such a jack of all genres is actually his own brand, and as such it’s understandable that he can confuse his own notes with quotes. So I feel quite liberated in the following screed, in which I extensively steal from Zakaria. Noblesse oblige.

These days, a confluence of any group from animal rights advocates to new world hairdressers is routinely referred to as a Summit, suggesting the ultimate Everest in prestige. But your actual last word in fearful summitry occurred recently in a California burg called Sunnylands between Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. You can’t get any more summitted than that.

(Parenthetically, whatever happened to Chinese names like Charlie Chan or Mr. Woo The Window Cleaner? In the modern People’s Republic, they’ve gone rococo with the spelling of surnames and place names alike. Any public figure of note is doomed to oblivion without an X or two in his name. And they’ve even done away with Peking. Is it just bourgeois sophistry, or did those former Chinese such as the Ming Dynasty just not know how to spell in English?)

Anyway, this Presidential shin-dig was quite the oriental fish market. You know the deal: at eye level, with or without interpreters, a certain polite interchange is going on, while the take-away, the actual agreement or lack thereof, minus the face-saving discourse, is going on at groin level. The Obama-Jinping conflab was no exception, selon Zakaria, who had it on the best authority, actually tapping in to none other than National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon. If you can drop names like that, you’re well worth plagiarizing.

According to Donilon, and Zakaria, and of course me, the usual format for these discussions is that each leader brings a list of complaints, and that’s where the fish market comes in. While official communiques in the form of media releases and press conferences will reveal that the talks have been “fruitful and positive” at eye level, down at the grungy, the real exchange, as produced by the memoranda between aides, staff members, consisting of supporting papers and written agreements, treaties and letters of intent, are a different story. Instead of amicable back-slapping, the nitty-gritty consists of stuff like: “You stop buddying up to the Japs and our emissaries will advocate that our private sector – if you can call it that – will stop shipping you contaminated dog food.” That sort of thing.

But this time it was different, according to Donilon, as interpreted by Zakaria, as plagiarized by me. Instead of coming with complaints, Xi and Barack were just bursting with positive suggestions and opportunities. Jinping outlined some of the domestic plans that are part of his new agenda, such as sweeping reforms. Stuff like maybe clean drinking water for the upwardly mobile one billion who correspond to Romney’s 47%, and sociological breakthroughs, such as now the middle class – a recent development in official nomenclature, can have as many kids as they want, provided they teach them about safe sex. And long range — which is the usual Chinese model — the Politburo may introduce popular voting by the election cycle beginning in 2050.

This is pretty heady stuff. Xi hinted that the Big Eight might consider adopting the American Electoral College system, except that the number of electoral college votes would be limited to Eight. (President Obama’s playful comment that Trotsky would turn over in his mausoleum was apparently lost on the translator.)

For his part, President Obama, after a brief review of his many accomplishments in his first term, talked about the opportunities available in the second term, or the more tactical short-term American type of forecasting, touching briefly on proposed legislation to relax trade restrictions on certain parts of Asia if they smarten up, and increase our naval strength in the South China Sea in order to protect China’s interests from possible encroachments by traditional competitors such as Singapore and Macao.

The general atmosphere was unusually informal, even personal, with Xi describing his own years of hardship during the Cultural Revolution and Obama responding that he’d had it even tougher growing up in Third World Indonesia. Both were quick to point out that such personal experience gave each of them a keener insight into the plight of the masses both in rural China and downtown Chicago.

While the expressed purpose of this Summit was to strengthen mutual confidence and trust rather than make tangible progress in substantive economic or political results, both sides appeared to agree that tangible shifts in former policy had been achieved on both sides. Perennially displaying a Big Brother attitude to North Korea ever since China’s bugle and baseball-bat armed hordes forced MacArthur’s Big Bug-out from the Yalu River, it was circulated widely that a week prior to Sunnylands, Xi had read the riot act to a North Korean envoy. The message: no more nuclear ping-pong at Pyongyang.

In return, the American delegation (in the nether regions of the fish market) negotiations indicated that, given China’s vast resources and America’s leading-edge technology in extraction, the whole area of mutual assistance could look like a totally different dance card.

As the sun sank slowly over the polluted Pacific, it became increasingly clear that encouraging eye-level discussions in time would have to be strengthened by groin-level action. But the Chinese guests helped the process, according to Donilon, Zakaria and me, when at the wind-up banquet they produced a hogshead or two of a strictly proletarian sorghum-based booze known as Moutai, hopeful that a series of toasts would help grease the slippery slope of the Summit.

As Zakaria pointed out in his column (Time, June 24):

“Henry Kissinger is said to have told Deng Xiaoping, “I think if we drink enough Maotai, we can solve anything.”

Obama might consider responding the next time with bourbon in Beijing.

(Fareed, I thought that last one up all by myself.)

Bill Annett writes four newsletters: The Canadian Shield, American Logo, Beating the Street, and The Oyster World. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Bill.