by Beatrice Camp
Celebrating the bicentennial birthday of our 16th president seemed like a fairly safe event for our Shanghai consulate to undertake, considering that Abraham Lincoln was popular in China and former President Jiang Zemin was well known for quoting from the Gettysburg Address. And, of course, Lincoln provided us an opening to talk about “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Sometime after we decided on the program, the State Department announced that Hillary Clinton would travel to Beijing on her first trip as Secretary of State to highlight the importance of the U.S.-China relationship for the new administration. Shanghai wasn’t on her itinerary and yet, somehow, our consulate preparations to hold a 200th birthday party for Abraham Lincoln in February 2009 almost threw a wrench into this important SecState visit.
Our arrangements were well under way in late January, with consulate parents bartering for Lincoln pennies from their kids’ piggy banks; we polished the coins and pasted them to cards explaining the history of the Lincoln penny, introduced in 1909 in honor of the president’s 100th birthday. Given that we couldn’t wait for the U.S. Mint’s new bicentennial version, these were to be take-home mementos for guests. We even ordered a cake featuring the Lincoln penny.
For more on the food front, I called my Illinois-born 90-year-old mother to ask what Lincoln would eat. “Squirrel!” she responded without hesitation. With no squirrels available in Shanghai, we settled on Kentucky burgoo and cornbread.
One week before the birthday celebration, things started to unravel. In an out-of-the-blue Saturday call from Beijing, the Deputy Chief of Mission demanded to know what the hell we were doing. He reported that relevant authorities in Beijing had heard about our Lincoln reception, deemed it suspicious, and were threatening to derail Secretary Clinton’s upcoming visit, considered crucial to the future of U.S.-China relations.
He didn’t have to remind me of the media reports that were hyper-ventilating about the stakes: “When Hillary Clinton visits Beijing this week, her Chinese hosts will closely watch her body language and parse her every word. Her first trip here as the U.S. secretary of state comes in the shadow of the global financial crisis, the pressing North Korea nuclear issue and a warming planet.” Nothing could be allowed to derail this high-stakes visit, certainly not a random consulate event.
I couldn’t believe that Lincoln’s birthday could cause such anguish. The next shoe dropped on Monday when I was summoned by local authorities, who read me a prepared statement objecting to our event. The statement did not get me any closer to understanding the Chinese objections to our event; our only clue was the DCM’s asking me whether we had invited Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), a Chinese dissident and veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen movement who had been put under house arrest in December 2008. No, we didn’t invite him, I said. Besides, isn’t he in jail?
When I checked the guest list, I saw that we had an invitee named Lu Xiaobo. Now, in Chinese characters those names – Lu vs Liu (陆 vs 刘)– wouldn’t have been confused at all; the only explanation was that somebody had provided the authorities with the English version of the guest list, leading to the mistaken conclusion that we were doing something subversive. Despite the official objections, we went ahead with the program. That evening half of our guests didn’t show up; some were told not to come, others were blocked from getting to the consulate.
We hosted a sparser, albeit memorable, reception; consulate staff lunched on leftover Kentucky burgoo the next day and Secretary Clinton’s visit proceeded as planned the following week.
A year later Liu was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. The Chinese government denounced the award as “a desecration of the Peace Prize”, and continued to detain Liu until just before his death by cancer in 2017. Even today his name is censored in China.
Beatrice Camp headed the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai 2008-2011. She began her foreign service career at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1984, with subsequent assignments in Bangkok, Stockholm, Budapest, Chiang Mai, and Washington, DC. She is Editor of American Diplomacy.