Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain recently posted on his social media accounts photographs of himself and President Barack Obama tucking into bowls of pho noodles, grilled pork, and cold beer in a restaurant in Vietnam.
But Chinese citizens are still not quite convinced that the casual dinner session was authentic.
Obama had arrived in Vietnam on May 22 as part of a week-long diplomatic trip in Asia. Japan is Obama’s final stop on the trip, and he is set to make history as the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the city that America dropped an atomic bomb on in 1945 near the end of the Second World War.

Obama’s simple dinner with Bourdain at the Hanoi restaurant Bún chả Hương Liên had been arranged beforehand, and the conversation between the two would be shown in September on Bourdain’s CNN show, “Parts Unknown.”
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About 500 people had gathered outside the restaurant to catch a glimpse of Obama, according to Vietnamese newspaper VnExpress. When the president left the restaurant, he shook hands with enthusiastic locals as they snapped photos of him on their cellphones.

Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. pic.twitter.com/KgC3VIEPQr
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) 2016年5月23日

It is unclear if mainland Chinese citizens were aware that the meeting between Obama and Bourdain was for a TV show. But many caught on that it was definitely staged, and they took to Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging site, to debunk the photos that were circulating on the internet.
“Best picture: The food on the other tables are exactly the same as what Obama ordered,” “Cheng Pengfei OH” from Hubei Province wrote.
“colonization” wrote: “If Obama was sitting right next to you, would still be eating so calmly?”
“Aiyayayayayaai” from Hubei Province speculated: “People in the vicinity are in fact agents of Asian descent—the CIA wouldn’t dare sit Obama that close to regular Vietnamese.”
Other netizens drew comparisons between Chinese officials and the U.S. President at the comment section of Chinese news portal NetEase.
In the comment section of Chinese news portal NetEase, “setsu” from Zhejiang Province wrote: “[Obama] doesn’t act like a president. He should have a $1,000 dollar. A county official in China eats much better food.”
A netizen from Hunan Province wrote: “A township chief dines extravagantly, while you are having street food. If you don’t go to a hotel to have a meal, how can you establish your official prestige?”
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It is unknown if any of these netizens who questioned the authenticity of the incident were part of China’s 50 cent army—paid commentators that spam the internet with posts aimed at painting the Chinese regime in a favorable light.
This is not the first time that Chinese netizens have closely scrutinized Obama’s public gestures. During Obama‘s March visit to Cuba, many Chinese netizens expressed shock that Obama had held his own umbrella to shelter First Lady Michelle Obama from rain.

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On May 24, the United States made a diplomatic move in the Asia–Pacific region that strengthens the growing coalition against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), deepens U.S. influence in the region, and expands the number of nations around China that are shifting away from pacifism and inaction.
The CCP’s response was to welcome the move, and declare it a healthy development for the world.
If that response seems uncharacteristic of the CCP, you’re right, but only because its interests rest much deeper.
The move in discussion is President Barack Obama’s lifting of the decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam. He met with Vietnamese leader Tran Dai Quang and declared, according to The Associated Press, “This change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War.”
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, according to a transcript, that China is “happy to see Vietnam develop normal relations with all countries, including the U.S.”
With the CCP, all of its responses—whether through its Foreign Ministry spokesperson or its state-run news outlets—are going to be tightly regulated, and with something on this scale, also tightly calculated.
What’s interesting about this development is that the CCP seems to have assessed that it’s more in its interest to feign support for the development than to criticize it. And its likely interest is the potential that this could act as a springboard for it to begin lobbying the United States and the European Union to lift similar arms embargoes on China—which were set in place after its Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Vietnam’s poor human rights record has been one of the deal’s main points of criticism, and the fact that Obama went ahead with the deal despite this likely has some Chinese leaders rubbing their hands together.
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The Chinese regime pushes an ideology in its form of diplomacy that human rights shouldn’t get in the way of politics. This policy has enabled it to forge alliances with some of the world’s most despotic regimes, and to build its own bloc of influence with countries the United States and European Union refuse to deal with.
This factor has brought strong criticism onto the CCP, since its support of countries like North Korea allows totalitarian regimes to sustain themselves when they would otherwise very likely collapse.
Of course, Vietnam isn’t as bad as North Korea, but it is run by a communist one-party government, and it also has some of the same human rights abuses as other communist states. According to a freedom ranking of countries by Freedom House, Vietnam scored 20 out of 100 with being the least free. It notes that Vietnam has almost no political freedom and few civil liberties.
What’s interesting about China’s response to the new deal is that its propaganda thinkers have apparently assessed that the benefit of a muted response outweighs the benefit of criticism—particularly since this will likely shift the tides further against its favor in the Asia–Pacific region.
The deal itself is more symbolic than anything. Its main impact will likely be much less on Vietnam’s military strength and much more on how Vietnam is perceived globally.
Vietnam was already buying military vehicles and equipment from Russia, and the shift in U.S. stance is unlikely to make Vietnam much more of a military threat to China than it already is. Vietnam has more military personnel than the United States, with close to half a million in active service and a reserve force of three million.
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But if recent history tells us anything, the CCP does view this new deal as a threat and is holding its tongue. When the United States began lifting its arms embargo on Vietnam in 2014, the CCP’s state-run People’s Daily criticized the deal and accused the United States of interfering with the “balance of power in the region.”
The “balance of power in the region” is what this new deal will likely impact most. What it changes is how the United States views Vietnam, and it may help Vietnamese diplomacy with other nations as well. As Japan Times reported, it will reduce the “political sensitivity” that nations would otherwise face when strengthening ties with Vietnam.

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BEIJING—China rejected a protest from Vietnam over a flight test it has conducted on a new airstrip on a man-made island in the South China Sea, saying it is part of China’s territory.

Vietnam Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said that the test flight violated Vietnam’s sovereignty, breached mutual understanding and hurt the bilateral relations.
“Vietnam resolutely protests Chinese above-said action and demand that China immediately stop, not repeat similar actions,” he said in a statement.
In a response Saturday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the test flight on the newly built airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands was carried out to find out if the new airfield met the standards for civil aviation.
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“Relevant activity falls completely within China’s sovereignty,” Hua said in a statement. “The Chinese side will not accept the unfounded accusations from the Vietnamese side.”
China has become more assertive in pressing its claims to the South China Sea islands, an archipelago rich in natural resources that is the focal point of rival claims by neighboring governments.
China has recently piled sand on coral reefs atop of which it built airfields, radar installations and docking facilities. As with most of its policy in the South China Sea, Beijing has remained opaque about its plans for the island airstrips.
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Beijing insists its island building works are justified and don’t constitute a threat to stability and freedom of navigation. The U.S. and its regional allies have expressed concern that China’s robust assertion of its claims has aggravated tensions.
Although Vietnam already has an airstrip in the Spratlys, it is just long enough to accommodate slow-moving cargo and surveillance planes. China’s airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef is long enough for bombers capable of launching cruise missiles.

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