Obama Captures All Our Feelings About Chinese Politics In One Shrug

Obama's shrug

I love this GIF.

This was President Barack Obama’s reaction to Xi Jinping stonewalling New York Times reporter Mark Landler, and it captures — in two inches of movement, half a second, a tilt of an eyebrow — so many of our feelings about Chinese politics and journalism: yeah, it’s opaque and dreary and venal and debasing to common intellect, but what are ya gonna to do? Eh? Not like revolution has historically been any better, so best to leave em to their devices. Or as New York Times reported:

“The Chinese say, ‘let he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off,’ ” Mr. Xi added, in a somewhat enigmatic phrase that was not immediately translated into English. It is normally interpreted as “the party which has created the problem should be the one to help resolve it.”

But man, that shrug — a shrug without budging the shoulder, a shrug that belongs on the Mount Rushmore of shrugs, a ladleful of amazing, pure poetry of body movement, what Chinese politicians can’t begin dreaming of attaining because that would require they sleep, because then we’d have evidence they were human beings, humans able to express basic bafflement, irony, lighthearted acquiescence – that shrug is a fucking mynx.

ABC News has a video of the above: basically, Xi Jinping’s central processor shutting down before our eyes as he removes his earpiece and turns toward the obsequious Chinese media while others in the press corps chuckle at his face with tactful viciousness.

Outside of all the obvious things we can say about this, I’ll humbly submit: it wasn’t even a hard question. Landler, possibly understanding he wouldn’t get a response anyway, asked about visas. Not censorship, Hong Kong, or human rights… just journalist visas, which was apropos considering the US just relaxed its visa policy (10-year visas now available to Chinese travelers).

But Xi – adhering to his weeklong, surely deliberate (and deliberated upon) strategy of staying as aloof as possible, like a 13-year-old hipster at a family picnic, way too cool for those gauche monkey bars – gave his best sulk-and-simper, mope-and-dope, and pressed his “system restart” button. You can easily envision the look without seeing it, how it begins in the eyes, the frumpy old ayi of his soul throwing close those windows and loudly latching them from the inside, muttering under her breath a curse of the self-imposed prison to which she owns the keys; how it spreads, like the widening radius of an infestation, into his brows and cheekbones, causing skin to sag with the weight of profound understanding and grievous regret that life exists and living things live; followed by, finally, a resigned acceptance that the adult world outside his magic fort abides by a set of conventions set through human concert, human strain and effort; oh what the crippled heart will never know; how our eye level can seem like a mountain’s peak to the quadriplegic. We know the look too well.

How fortunate, then, that the cameras focused on Obama, and that reaction, and that GIF. Goddamn I love it to bits.

    14 Responses to “Obama Captures All Our Feelings About Chinese Politics In One Shrug”

    1. Harland

      It’s pretty hard to find things to write gushing prose about Obama, isn’t it? The old days were much better. Back then, writers could go on for pages and pages, but all we’ve got left today is 500 words about a reaction .GIF. The old Obama was better.

    2. Bridget

      I think the image of the leader represents the image of a country. Leaders should be always keep that concept in mind and pay attention to their behaviors. That shrug, in my humble opinion, is inappropriate to some extent. That may let Chinese think that Obama looks down on the politics of China.
      But in the other hand, it makes Obama a more substantial and real person, not just a symbol of America.

      • jixiang

        Quite frankly, I think it’s impossible not to look down upon the politics of China to some extent.

        Perhaps it’s a good thing if Chinese people realize how ridicolous Chinese politics can seem to outsiders?

      • Steven Knipp

        Bridget, Obama SHOULD look down on the politics of China. China is a police state, it’s the largest police state in history. There is no rule of law there. There is no freedom of assembly, no freedom of the press. No freedom to travel unless you get government approval. Teacher are told what to teach and were they will teach it. Unions of any sort are illegal. If you break any law in China the trail will be closed — no media, no family members, and no court records are released. When buying a computer in China, you must register that computer with the PSB (the Public Security Bureau) and if you post anything on a website which the government dislikes, you can be sent to prison for a very long time. China has many tens of thousands of political prisoners. China is also the world’s worse polluters. The UN reports that 16 of the world’s most polluted cities are in side China. The CCP – the Chinese Communist Party is massively corrupt. Even by the Chinese government’s own report, some 2,000 Chinese flee China with stolen millions ($$$). So the look that Obama gave the Chinese was pretty much what anyone who knows the real China well would give in response to something that any government official says. China is not in the midst of crushing out democracy in Hong Kong.

    3. Bridget

      Steven, maybe China is not so free to some extent. But I think it’s a must to have some restricts to the behaviors of citizens. Absolute liberty always means absence of restraint and it may lead to unrest to the country. At least we are very safe because of these restraints now. And I’m very grateful that I live in China.

      • Awesome Jim

        You know fine well that no-one’s talking about ‘absolute liberty’ but just the basic liberties which are denied the Chinese public. You may feel safe but I promise that others who have had their land stolen, their homes seized, their businesses destroyed by Chengguan; THOSE people don’t feel safe at all. I don’t feel safe every time I cross the street in this country because some arsehole in a big black Audi could run me over and then hush it up by paying the police money. Not safe at all.
        And next time you should click on the ‘Reply’ tag at the bottom of Steve’s comment so that he has the right to reply.

      • Awesome Jim

        Sorry if I sounded a bit aggressive there; the Audi thing almost happened to me when I was out walking the dog. The I saw your ‘safe in China’ thing and blew a fuse.
        I’m a lovely person really. A lovely person who lives in China. And doesn’t feel safe. :(

      • jixiang

        Bridget, this idea that China can’t have democracy and proper human rights because otherwise the country will have “unrest” and descend into chaos is an idea which the Chinese government strongly promotes among its people. Many Chinese, including clearly you, have taken this as a fact. I live in China, and personally I think it’s nonsense.

        There are lots of countries, including poor “developing countries” like China, which have democracy and a system which respects basic rights like freedom of speech and of assembly. Those countries have problems, but then so does China. I am sure that if China had a democratic system of government, it would not fall into chaos. There would be some new problems, but in the long term a move towards democracy would solve more problems than it would create. China currently may be “stable” and “safe”, but it’s the kind of stability which comes with repression, which is not a healthy kind of stability. It just means that people keep a lot of anger bottled up inside of them.

        Another thing: democracy does not mean “absence of restraint” or absolute liberty. All countries have laws. Democracy means that there is a separation of power, so that the judiciary is not controlled by the government and it can make impartial decisions. It also means that expressing your opinions is never dangerous.

        And finally, you say you’re very grateful you live in China? What do you base this opinion on? Have you lived in other countries so you can compare?


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