The Narrative on Xi-Obama

In business and politics there is no longer truth and lies. There is only narrative. The narrative is all that matters.

The narrative is the truth wrapped in context – like a beef pattie in a bun. That makes it a hamburger.

While I assure you that I mean nothing political about the example I’ve chosen but you can’t miss the point on this one.

A former president of the United States once declared, with obvious sincerity, “I did not have sex with that woman.”   What he forgot was the context, being that he does not consider oral sex to be sex as the term is commonly understood. Did he lie? Not in that context. Did he tell the truth? Not in the context others would have considered understandable applied to the declaration.

Both sides won.

It will soon be earnings season again in Corporate America. And I can assure you that any company that comes up short of expectations will have a narrative.   The narrative won’t change the facts, but it will attempt to change the context (e.g. strong dollar, weakness in China, etc., etc.) and that, in a nutshell, will change the narrative.

I learned about narrative at a very young age. “Gary, did you do this?” “Yes, but my brother made me do it or he would beat me up.”

OK, so what was the narrative that came out of this week’s visit of President Xi Jinping to the United States, his first official state visit since he took office in 2012? The narrative on both sides of the Pacific was the same, “We won!”

In a previous post I correctly predicted that commercial cyber hacking would be on the US agenda but was a non-starter. According to President Obama, I was wrong. In a Reuters report reprinted by CNBC President Obama triumphantly proclaimed “The United States government does not engage in cyber economic espionage for commercial gain, and today I can announce that our two countries have reached a common understanding on a way forward.”

But what is the context? Since moving backward is not an option in a case like this, that truth could have been proclaimed months ago with a high degree of certainty. But what does forward look like? Forward to where? And how will we know when we’re there.

President Xi responded in kind. “Confrontation and friction are not the right choice for both sides.” Fair enough. But when are they? And how far will each side go to avoid them?

As is often the case these days, President Obama wanted to talk issues: human rights, the South China Sea, etc. And President Xi wanted to put it all in context. To paraphrase, “We are a developing country with a different history and different culture.”

Victory all around.

The one area that there was general factual and contextual agreement on – a common narrative – was climate change. President Xi officially announced that a national carbon cap-and-trade system would be in place in China in 2017. The US, unfortunately, has yet to meet that goal.

This was commonly viewed by the Western media as a victory for President Obama. I beg to differ. While it certainly wasn’t a loss for President Obama, the narrative victory will ultimately go to President Xi. After all, China is already the biggest carbon-emitter in the world. And in a recent poll that the leadership in China is obviously taking very seriously, the Chinese public have said clearly that corruption, pollution, and income inequality are their three biggest concerns. It is easy for Westerners to think of global climate change and pollution as conceptual issues. But for we who live it every day it’s much more on our minds than your own, I’m sure. (When was the last time you wore a breathing mask to go to the grocery store?)

All told, I believe President Xi got very high marks for his visit to the US here at home in China. He was greeted in Seattle by the Governor of the State of Washington and in Washington D.C. by Vice President Joe Biden, but he took it all in stride. The Pope was in the country, to be fair.

But here’s the context. The Communists took over in 1949. President Nixon was the first US President to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1972, 23 years later. The U.N. General Assembly seat previously held by Taiwan was only given to the PRC in 1971.

And here they are, less than 50 years later, the second largest economy in the world, having brought 300 million people out of poverty in one generation, and doing $550 billion in bilateral trade with the country of the century, the US.

As the narrative goes, all sides can claim victory. Within the context, however, I believe President Xi Jinping will receive a hero’s welcome in the weeks ahead. His narrative never changed, he never backed down on the issue of the South China Sea, and he was treated with a respect that was acceptable. (The narrative of the 2016 presidential race was put on hold for the most part – at least as far as China. After all, whomever wins will have to deal with this President of China for his or her entire term(s))

No one in China pretends that China is yet the US. They know, however, they are gaining fast and Xi’s reception and performance this past week reinforced that.

For him, I think, a successful week.

Gary Moreau's latest fictional novel written under the pen name of Avam Hale.
Gary Moreau’s latest fictional novel written under the pen name of Avam Hale.

Copyright © 2015 Gary Moreau

Note:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.

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