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The United States and China: Be Mine, Valentine?

It always surprises people to find out just how popular some Western holidays are in China. I was stunned the first time I saw a Christmas tree and heard “White Christmas” playing. Anyone who stays in Chinese hotels during December will come home ready to break dishes if they hear “Frosty the Snowman” one more time. Valentine’s Day is another popular holiday in China, in spite of the fact that there is a traditional Chinese date for celebrating love (click here to read an article about this from Berkshire’s Guanxi: The China Letter, March 2008), and the Chinese awareness of February 14th is about to influence international relations.

While President Obama knows that February 14th is Valentine’s Day, we Americans do not see much significance in the date on which meetings take place. We are alert to certain anniversaries – of 9/11, for example, but otherwise we don’t worry too much about popular holidays or numbers when planning events. But dates are very important in China. I knew a young man launching an online business who consulted a relative skilled in numerology about the most propitious date for the beta release. The Olympics began at 8.08 pm on the 8th day of the 8th month of 2008. (Yes, the number eight (X, ba) is considered lucky, because “ba” sounds like “bao,” which means wealth.)

Imagine the surprise of an American expert being interviewed about the visit this week of Xi Jinping, current vice president and soon-to-be president of the People’s Republic of China, when asked by a Chinese reporter about the significance of President Obama’s arranging their meeting on Valentine’s day. “What does this mean about US intentions?” asked the reporter.

“You have got to be kidding,” said the American expert. But the reporter wasn’t kidding, and the question came again. And again, in another interview. “The president has a very busy schedule,” the American explained.

The Chinese, however, see significance in dates. In this case, there’s a special incentive: the hope that the US government is signaling a desire for a better relationship, for more love between the world’s two most powerful countries. While the choice of Valentine’s Day was an accident, let’s consider it a happy accident.

Here is Stephen Orlins, President of the National Committee on US-China Relations, interviewed by Bloomberg News today about the upcoming Valentine’s Day visit:

Anything that promotes goodwill between our countries and our leaders is a benefit to all of us and to the world at large. And I’m hoping that the White House will at least make sure that Xi Jinping is presented with a sampling of Sweethearts, Valentine’s Day cards, and lots and lots of chocolate. If the president and vice president somehow neglect to do this, I am happy to make up for it by adding (at Molly McFall’s emphatic suggestion) the following “deeply romantic video from someone who brings the entire world together, Justin Bieber” (I quote Molly because I had never heard Justin Bieber sing until today):

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