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Obama weighs in on the Great Wall

President Obama tours the Great Wall on November 18, 2009 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

By Andrew Higgins
BEIJING -- President Obama trekked to the Great Wall on Wednesday and ran the gantlet that torments all U.S. presidents when they visit China: what does the world's most powerful man say about one of mankind's most awe-inspiring monuments?

"It's majestic," declared Obama, according to a pool report, before he flew off to South Korea, the final stop of his eight-day Asian tour. "It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it." Wire services quoted the president as saying, "It's magical."

In any case, his comments fell short of the best-known line in wall-related presidential oratory -- Ronald Reagan's 1987 appeal to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

But that was the Berlin Wall, and no U.S. president had come up with anything like it when faced with the Great Wall of China.

When Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing in 1972, he made history by meeting Mao Zedong but tumbled into the mundane when he went to the wall. "It sure is a Great Wall," Nixon declared.

Nor did George W. Bush have much success finding words to match the moment. On his own trip to the Great Wall in 2002, Bush lingered only 25 minutes, signed the guest book and then uttered a line that made his handlers cringe: "Let's go home."

Obama, wearing a black jacket and hatless despite the freezing cold, stayed only a few minutes longer than Bush at a structure that for centuries has symbolized China's wariness of foreigners. His visit Wednesday to the Badaling section of the Great Wall lasted about half an hour -- about as long as it took him to finish a speed-tour of the Forbidden City on Tuesday.

Though built to keep out foreigners, the Great Wall now pulls in tourists, as well as leaders from around the world. More than 450 foreign heads of state and government have made the trip. The base of the wall now features a Starbucks and a KFC, both closed Wednesday for Obama's visit, along with dozens of souvenir stalls and Chinese restaurants.

Obama's trip was the final event of a two-and-a-half-day visit to China that began with the president taking a kick at another wall -- a system of Internet censorship known as the Great Firewall of China. "I'm a big supporter of noncensorship," Obama told Chinese students in Shanghai on Monday.

It wasn't as direct as Reagan's message to Gorbachev in Berlin, but it was still a rebuke to China's ruling Communist Party during a visit otherwise marked by effusive courtesy. This continued Wednesday on the Great Wall, where Obama declared "great admiration for Chinese civilization."

Unlike its modern-day electronic equivalent, the original Great Wall never really worked very well as a defensive line. It was repeatedly breached. Work on it started more than 2,000 years ago, but most of what stands today dates from the Ming Dynasty, which itself collapsed in 1644 when Manchu horsemen thundered through an open gate and rode on to capture Beijing.

With a decision on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan looming when he gets back to Washington, Obama seemed to find solace in a fortification that, though a military flop, has become an emblem of one of the world's oldest and most enduring civilizations.

"It gives you a good perspective on the fact that a lot of the day to day things that we worry about don't amount to much compared to the sweep of history," Obama said.

But it was hardly an occasion for solitary reflection. Also at the wall were a swarm of Chinese police, American Secret Service agents, Chinese escorts -- including Beijing's ambassador to Washington -- and a host of White House staffers, among them senior White House adviser David M. Axelrod.

Axelrod, who didn't make the steep climb up a section of the wall viewed by the president, struck a Nixonian note in his own description of the ancient fortification. "It's a great wall," he told reporters.

By Washington Post Editor  |  November 18, 2009; 10:37 AM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency , Obama Abroad  
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Next: Holder: don't fear 'coward' 9/11 plotter trial


Posted by: obamniac | November 18, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I am so glad I took time to read this story.
I also had assumed the Great Wall Of China
was in Berlin;
and that Ronald Reagan and Barrack Obama
Have so much in common.
Oh Yes.. they do'
Now I recall, Mr.Obama called Mr.Reagan's
Wife a Loon...
Oh Yes,
you could have somehow tied that in too.
it would have been just as relavent.

nice story.
generations of americans will forever
be in your debt.
the free press.
will history prove,
that the free voice of the press
has already been silenced,
and it has not sunk in yet?

Posted by: simonsays1 | November 18, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I interpreted 'the wall' as a comment about the benchmark in global justice.

Posted by: RayOne | November 18, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

The typos in this article/blog is what struck me the most. Missing words in three or four sentences.

And comparing presidential comments on the Berlin Wall to Great Wall is a stretch.

Posted by: travisloop | November 18, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

peregrine1, neither wall could stand the test of time and the destiny of the people.
The tier economy being build in Washington will, once recognized, will be brought down.

Posted by: RayOne | November 18, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

He looks good at the Wall, he looks good at every wall.
Non doctors will write healthcare reform.
New York City and the Constitution will be fodder.

Posted by: RayOne | November 18, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Notes from the Road: China Invests in Ethiopia's Infrastructure
Huffington Post

We've been reading about how China is investing in African agriculture for a few years now, but this week is the first time we've really seen what that means on the ground. As we traveled from Addis to Aksum, it's impossible not to notice who is building the roads here. Hint: it's not the Ethiopian government. The Chinese, even though they can't legally own land in Ethiopia, have brought in bulldozers and trucks to improve already-existing roads and build new ones. Along with building roads, they've also built good will with Ethiopian policymakers and farmers because better roads allow farmers to get their goods from farm to market more easily.

In Aksum alone, the Chinese have built more than 150 kilometers of roads and provided cell phones for farmers -- allowing them, for the first time ever, to check prices before they go to market and to call ahead for supplies and materials. The Chinese are also leasing huge amounts of land for isolated compounds stacked with pre-fabricated homes, complete with satellite TVs and Chinese cooks, for the road engineers.

But this investment isn't entirely altruistic. China, a nation of more than 1. 3 billion people and counting that is concerned about its ability to feed its own population today and into the future, is buying up Ethiopian-grown cabbage, carrots, onions, and other crops to ship back home. One of our guides/interpreters said that sometimes the Chinese show up at markets near Aksum before they open, buying up all the goods before Ethiopian customers even arrive. It's an ironic situation, to say the least, as news reports warn of impending famine in the southeastern region of the country, where more than 6 million people are on the verge of starvation.

Follow Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg as they travel throughout Africa by visiting Border Jumpers [] or via twitter @borderjumping

Posted by: borderjumpers | November 18, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Good lord, get your walls straight. There is no parallel between Berlin Wall and Great Wall.

Posted by: peregrine1 | November 18, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

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