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!’”
O’Brien was, of course, riffing on Gorbachev’s trip to Badaling in May of 1989 (the first trip to China by a Soviet leader in thirty years), where he remarked that the Wall is “a very beautiful work, but there are already too many walls between people.” A reporter then asked him whether this meant he (whom Reagan, during a trip to Berlin two years earlier, had famously challenged, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) would allow the Berlin Wall—that most notorious of Cold War symbols—to be dismantled, to which the leader of the soon-to-be-defunct Soviet Union replied, “Why not?”
Even as O’Brien deliberately misquoted Bush, he also unintentionally misquoted Obama’s own description of the Wall. O’Brien was working off of the widely-quoted AP transcript of Obama’s remarks:
"It’s magical," Mr. Obama said, walking down a ramp alone, his hands in his pockets. "It reminds you of the sweep of history and our time here on earth is not that long. We better make the best of it."
As video footage from Fox News clearly indicates, however, Obama actually described the Wall as being not “magical” but rather “majestic,” and then continued, “It’s a reminder of the incredible history of the Chinese people. And I think it gives you a good perspective on the fact that a lot of the day-to-day things we worry about don’t amount to much compared to the sweep of history.”
This video footage offers a perspective on Obama’s visit from the figurative margins of the official White House “shot.” The video not only clearly features the “One World One Dream” sign in the background as Obama is making his remarks, but furthermore includes the president’s emphasis (also omitted from the AP quote) on the “good perspective” provided by the Wall itself.
Immediately following these remarks, Obama—reminded perhaps of the bitter cold that led him to keep his fists stuck deep in his jacket pockets, or possibly reflecting on the difficulty of framing a “shot” of the Wall in the first place—then added in an unscripted aside quoted by the New York Times, “I also think I’m glad I didn’t carry a camera.”