“So here you have this American press that’s used to writing very superficially about Obama along these lines of, ‘So he’s going to give a great speech and we’re going to watch him convince a lot of people and that’s going to be great theater for us and we can score this on that basis.’ One of the questions even before he even got there was, is there Obama-mania? There’s no Obama-mania in China! The Chinese authorities will not allow for that to happen. It doesn’t matter, whatever you think of Obama—how great he is, how poor he is—they simply will not allow for there to be an idol like that. The government, which sits above the media and supervises it, will not allow for a figure to emerge that way, will not allow a Chinese figure to emerge that way. So to think, ‘OK, here comes Obama and he’s going to really be allowed to have a presence in the Chinese media’—how do you become a celebrity that’s not through presence in the media, that’s going to begin to sway a lot of Chinese hearts and minds? Forget it. That’s totally naïve.

“The Chinese press were not allowed to build [Obama] up as a big story. This story is bothersome for China on any number of levels. China has its own minorities and its own minority problems. So the notion that a member of the minority of the United States that has the had most significant historical issues and problems can suddenly become the president of the United States and we’re going to build this up into this grand celebratory narrative? I mean, forget it! You think the Chinese are going to allow that to happen? No way. Never in a million years. But the press that doesn’t know China comes to this issue with all of those sensibilities. They ask, ‘I saw an Obama T-shirt and what does that mean?’ It’s silly and it’s dismaying and it’s naive and it’s unknowing, basically.”

The missed story

“Among what we know about the visit, we don’t everything that was said privately obviously, I think perhaps the most important single item or announcement is the matter of sending 100,000 American students to China. I think this is of huge importance, and I don’t think it got treated that way by the press at all. It got treated as a throwaway almost, like a footnote. It was presented as one in a list of things, no one broke it out and actually talked about what this could really mean.

“A generation ago, Chinese students started coming here in large numbers. Part of the theory behind that was, and this is somewhat naïve, they’ll come to our great country where we have all these wonderful values and we have openness and we have freedom and democracy and free enterprise, and they will absorb our values and take them back to China and change China. This was a piece of the thinking. So we’ve had a generation almost of this experience and guess what? It didn’t really altogether change China. You could argue that at the margins it did have some important effects, but certainly not to the extent that people who had this grand vision of it believed.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.