Tale of two hosts
A pensive Barack Obama walking alone on the Great Wall of China in November 2009. Barack and Michelle dancing with school children in Mumbai in November 2010.
The front-page snapshots of Obama in India and China capture the difference in the political cultures of the two nations, flavours as contrast as spicy kebabs compared to chicken soup. The India photographs show a relaxed US President being spontaneous, hugging his host, grinning a lot and speaking freely. Obama in Beijing struck the pose of a lonely figure outside his comfort zone, his words censored in the Chinese media. The first lady did not accompany Obama to Beijing.
While the Indians went all out with an exuberant display of hospitality on the visiting President and first lady, the Chinese hosts made measured, understated gestures nuanced with the power play of a challenger.
In his address to the media in Beijing, Obama stood tense next to an unsmiling President Hu Jintao, with no questions allowed. In New Delhi, Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hugged, answered a few questions and Obama joked with the media.
In Beijing, Obama was under pressure not to press China on human rights and Tibet, but he did raise both issues. In Delhi, he hailed India for succeeding because of democracy but also criticised India’s Myanmar policy while addressing the Parliament.
Obama’s chat with college students in Mumbai was broadcast nationwide and made front-page headlines. Obama’s chats with Shanghai students asking reportedly rehearsed questions was not broadcast live on national television. Official Chinese news reports scrubbed Obama’s references to Internet freedom and freedom of expression. Propaganda officials reportedly targeted his interview to the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly and delayed the edition from reaching the stands. Obama’s declaration that India has emerged was also downplayed in the Chinese media.
Manmohan Singh hosted an Awadhi dinner for the Obamas, with soups, seafood, meat, kebabs, dal, pulao, vegetables and traditional desserts. The ITC Maurya created an Obama Platter of tandoori Mughlai cuisine. At his White House state dinner last year, Obama served Singh a banquet including coconut aged basmati, red lentil soup with cheese, green curry prawns, potato dumplings with chutney, chickpeas and okra, potato and eggplant salad, pear tatin, pumpkin pie tart and chocolate dipped fruits.
In Beijing, President Hu served Obama a cold dish, chicken soup, and three mains of beefsteak, sautéed wild rice shoots and roast sea grouper. Some read the menu as a subtle snub, while the Chinese media said Hu had set an example of austerity.