A photo-op is, by definition, a carefully framed appearance intended for public dissemination. We might ask, however, what lies at—or just beyond—the margins of these public images of Obama’s trip to the Wall?
The White House shot captures Obama walking along the Badaling section of the Wall just outside Beijing. The thousands of tourists who would ordinarily be swarming this section of the structure had, of course, been cleared out prior to his visit, though a reminder of their absent presence can be seen in the large “One World One Dream” sign in the landscape beside the structure.
The “One World” sign ironically echoes the refrain of the 1985 famine relief song “We Are the World,” with which the People’s Liberation Army had hilariously serenaded Obama at a dinner banquet the preceding evening. The phrase is actually the official motto of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and more generally reflects China’s on-going attempts “to march into the world” (as one of China’s aspirational slogans from the 1980s puts it) and establish its presence on the global stage.
Beneath the sunny optimism of this call for “One World One Dream,” however, are the political controversies involving the nation’s official “One China” policy. Officially, the “One China” motto refers to the PRC’s claims of sovereignty over what it perceives as the renegade province of Taiwan (aka, the Republic of China, or ROC), but also implicitly speaks to the government’s attempts to deal with secessionist threats from its northwestern “autonomous regions.”
China’s preparation for the Olympics have, therefore, provoked concern that the transparent subtext of its Olympic motto was actually “One World, One Dream, …. One China.” Conversely, in the summer of 2007 several foreign protesters rappelled down the nearby Mutianyu section of the Wall just East of Badaling and unfurled a 450 square foot banner that directly inverted the apparent logic of Beijing’s own Olympic motto: “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008.”
Obama departed on his recent Asia tour just days after the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Conan O’Brien alluded to the parallels between the Berlin and Beijing Walls when he quipped that while Obama deemed the Great Wall to be “quote magical,” two years earlier “former President Bush stood at the exact same spot and said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’”