By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
s US President Barack Obama took the stage at the Apec business leaders summit in Beijing, excitement rippled through the crowd and the packed room transformed into a sea of glowing smartphone screens.
Mr Obama is a rock star in China, no matter what editorials in state-controlled nationalist Chinese media say about the “insipid banality” of the “lame-duck” president or the decline of liberal democracy and “lazy” America.
Even Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke a day earlier, did not get anywhere near the excitement or rapt attention lavished on Mr Obama by the mostly Chinese crowd.
The contrast goes much further than a popularity contest at a business event.
From freedom of speech to labour rights and human rights, from open and transparent political systems to the celebration of diversity, Mr Obama captured the essence of what makes most Chinese parents who can afford it want to send their children to study in the US.
Mr Putin sounded more like the leader of a small, resource-rich declining power as he outlined a new agreement between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and possibly Armenia and invited the CEOs in the room to come and invest in Russia.
President Xi’s pitch to the region and the world was similarly one-dimensional.
After frightening its neighbours with aggressive territorial claims over the past few years, Beijing is now trying to charm them with billions of dollars in proposed infrastructure investment and the construction of “new silk road” and “maritime silk road” trade routes to Europe.
This largesse is part of Mr Xi’s “China dream”, which he defines broadly as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
To other countries, big and small, that slogan’s significance has become clearer in the last two years as Beijing seeks to assert its view of how international relations should work.
Most pictures and video clips of foreign dignitaries have seemed calculated to diminish their stature while elevating Mr Xi
Diplomats from many diverse countries say everything Beijing does these days seems intended to place other nations, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, into the role of tributary, subservient players in a system that resembles the ancient Chinese imperial order.
This week’s Apec meeting is the biggest event China has held since the 2008 Olympics and the first time Mr Xi’s administration has hosted a major international summit since he took power two years ago.
The portrayal by Chinese state media of Mr Xi as the benevolent emperor receiving tribute from foreign leaders is probably the most striking image to come out of the meeting.
Most pictures and video clips of foreign dignitaries have seemed calculated to diminish their stature while elevating Mr Xi.
When Mr Obama arrived in Beijing, the Chinese soldiers forming a corridor off the aircraft were all significantly taller than him, even though he is 6’1” (1.85m).
Other footage showed him walking without an entourage surrounded by Chinese officials and burly Chinese security officers as if to emphasise his vulnerability.
The ritual humiliation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was made to stand in front of the cameras like a penitent schoolboy while waiting to shake Mr Xi’s hand, was another striking example.
Until less than a day before that meeting, Chinese officials had still not even confirmed whether Mr Xi would deign to meet him.
Diplomats say China is one of very few countries that uses access to its leaders as a bargaining tool in international negotiations, just as the emperors once did.
With its infrastructure investment plans, China is offering inducements to countries that are willing to accept its vision of a revived tributary system in which it sits at the centre and is