US VP's 'noodle diplomacy' is a hit during visit to China
BEIJING // The Chinese press yesterday dubbed it "noodle diplomacy": the US vice president Joe Biden's visit to a cheap local restaurant here has caught the public's imagination in a country more used to leaders who are preoccupied with status and privilege.
In a public relations masterstroke, after talks on Thursday with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, Mr Biden headed to a family-owned eaterie for lunch, chatting with locals and ordering dishes including noodles with soybean paste, green peppers and potatoes.
The meal, shared with Mr Biden's granddaughter Naomi, his daughter-in-law, the new US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, and Mr Locke's wife, Mona, cost a modest 79 yuan (Dh45). Mr Biden paid with a 100-yuan note and let the restaurant keep the change.
The down-to-earth feast, which had attracted more than 20,000 internet comments by yesterday afternoon, came days after internet users were impressed by an online photo of Mr Locke shouldering a backpack at a Seattle airport coffee shop before his departure for Beijing.
Two years ago, the US president, Barack Obama, attracted similarly favourable responses when he carried his own umbrella in a rainy Shanghai.
The Chinese media have noted that, by contrast, even officials in charge of villages may employ drivers and bag carriers. Mayors have previously been lambasted for getting others to hold their umbrellas.
Zhang Qingmin, a professor in Peking University's Centre for International and Strategic Studies, said that while the most senior Chinese leaders believed in "governance for the people", many at a local level did not, despite calls from the central authorities.
"There's still a long way to go because of the long history of China's feudal role," he said, referring to the 3,000 years in which landlords and nobles collected rent from peasants and society was rigidly hierarchical.
"Many of the officials serve themselves. Perhaps Joe Biden and Gary Locke's behaviour makes the Chinese officials, whether local or national, see how far they are from the people and this could set an example, whether it's for show or from the bottom of their heart."
There have been cases where senior Chinese officials have discarded protocol and acted in a more relaxed manner.
In particular, the premier, Wen Jiabao, has cultivated a man-of-the people image, to the extent he was known as Grandpa Wen and often described as China's most popular politician.
Mr Wen has been pictured wading through a muddy field while carrying his own umbrella, and once held one aloft to keep the rain off the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
Also, Mr Zhang said in recent years China's diplomats have "gone out of their way" to get close to the communities in which they were posted, even if their actions rarely attracted attention.
Continuing his visit yesterday with a meeting with Mr Wen, Mr Biden assured China it had "nothing to worry about" with respect to its US$1.165 trillion (Dh4.28 trillion) holdings of US Treasury debt, despite a recent downgrade by a rating agency.
Yesterday afternoon Mr Biden held talks with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. After completing his tour of China, Mr Biden was set to stop in Mongolia for a day before flying to Japan.
Published: August 20, 2011 04:00 AM