White House visit left Hu with loss of 'face'
It is easy to make light of the importance of "face," which — particularly in Asia — might be described as a measure of one's personal dignity or importance.
In that context, the United States booted it badly in the recent visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House.
A series of gaffes — most, surely, inadvertent — left the Chinese leader and his countrymen with the unshakable view that his U.S. hosts cared little about the "face" of their important guest.
This is no small matter in China, where passions, both public and official, are often aroused by matters of this sort.
Hu, of course, offered little from his side of the table other than diplomatic eyewash. But in the end, he was our guest, and the totality of events left little to make him think he was welcome.
The most obvious example, of course, was what happened when an activist representing a newspaper published by Falun Gong, widely repressed in China, rudely interrupted a news conference staged by Hu and President Bush.
In the United States, of course, we have a strong belief that anyone has a right to access their elected leaders. Thus, it was entirely appropriate that the White House provided credentials to a representative of an organization with strong negative opinions about the current Chinese government.
But there are rules, even in this context. The Falun Gong representative was not there to obtain information; clearly she was there to embarrass Hu. And she did, even though Chinese state TV censored the moment out of its coverage.
There were other slights: An announcer proclaimed the band would play the national anthem of the "Republic of China," which is the name of Taiwan, not mainland China.
In an effort to downgrade the importance of this visit, the administration scheduled a luncheon rather than a more formal state dinner, and insisted that the visit was "official," rather than a more elevated "state" visit.
All this may seem rather silly. But in the world of diplomacy and "face," it matters. And while "face" is a universal value in all cultures, it is particularly important in Asian countries.
On a Web site, writer Sarah Rosenberg described how one can lose face. Possibilities include: a rebuffed overture; exposure to personal insult; exposure to a derogatory remark or disregard for one's status; damage to a valued relationship; and more.
By any measure, Hu's visit left him with a loss of face. The task ahead for the U.S. government is to repair the damage done as firmly and swiftly as possible.