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Getting to know Xi: White House prepares to meet China's new man

President Obama and Xi Jinping, China's likely next president, meet today at the White House. Many are hoping for a good rapport that will bolster a strained US-China relationship.

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Neither side expects any breakthroughs from Xi’s talks at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress. Xi is still only the Vice President, his portfolio does not include foreign affairs, and he will not want to make any compromises that might make him appear soft on Washington before his accession to the pinnacle of power.

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 At the same time, many of the differences between the US and China “cannot be resolved; they can only be managed and controlled,” suggests Shi Yinhong, a professor of international politics at Renmin University in Beijing.

One obstacle to better ties, however, has been the lack of chemistry between US leaders and outgoing President Hu Jintao, a stiff figure wary of going beyond his prepared talking points who is seemingly impervious to personal overtures from US presidents.

“Past Chinese leaders have tried to show an image of Communist party leaders as just average people, but the incumbent has not been very successful in this effort,” says Jin Canrong, deputy head of the American Studies Research Center at Renmin University.

Xi, on the other hand, is expected to present a more affable, spontaneous and self-confident image of a man more at ease in the world outside the Chinese leadership’s government compound.

“He wants to get to know American leaders, and if possible make friends with them,” says Professor Jin.

Though a “princeling” – the son of a revolutionary veteran and former Vice Premier – Xi spent six years during the Cultural Revolution as one of the educated young people whom Mao Zedong sent to the countryside. That experience in a poverty-stricken village “helped him to know ordinary people’s daily life,” says Jin. “I tend to believe he does understand ordinary people’s feelings.”

 Xi will likely seek to polish his “down home” image during a stopover in Muscatine, Iowa, where he led a provincial animal feed delegation in 1985 and stayed a couple of nights. His handlers are also trying to fit in a basketball game during the Vice President’s visit to Los Angeles.

If that goes down well with the American public, and if Xi hits it off with Mr. Obama, “I hope he will come across as someone we can do business with, with confidence,” says Lieberthal.

    “Good personal relations cannot solve everything, but they can’t hurt when it comes to the big issues that are hard to manage and they could help on issues that don’t have to be so confrontational, such as climate change,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of China at the University of California in Irvine.

   He cautions against unrealistic expectations, though. Since Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping captured America’s imagination by donning a ten gallon hat at a Texas rodeo in 1979, “the American desire to find a Chinese leader who understands us has been a longstanding fantasy,” Professor Wasserstrom warns. “But it hasn’t ever come true.” 

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