Xi Jinping in California: a glimpse of what China really wants

Chinese president-in-waiting Xi Jinping will spend most of his two-day California trip highlighting the two things that, perhaps, the Chinese people admire most about the US: films and basketball. 

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (l.) is greeted by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California Gov. Jerry Brown (r.) as he arrives at Los Angeles International airport on Thursday.

Now comes the fun part.

After getting an earful from Vice President Joe Biden in Washington about intellectual property rights and a cuff full of hog leavings at a farm in Iowa, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping now will tour Hollywood and hang with the people closest to the hearts of common Chinese people: movie executives and NBA basketball stars. He arrives Thursday afternoon and leaves Friday night.

Why is he here? “Oh, there must be 15 trillion reasons,” quipped Jay Leno on last night’s “Tonight Show,” referencing the size of the US federal debt (for which China is a major creditor).

But the inside story is that teams of Chinese film-production specialists have been here for months working on a deal to be announced by Mr. Xi on Friday: DreamWorks Animation will jointly build and operate a studio in Shanghai with two state-owned Chinese media companies, Shanghai Media Group and China Media Capital.

Beyond that, Xi will tour the Port of Los Angeles, where the China Shipping Terminal is doubling its space to keep up with the massive US-China trade, which reached $133 billion in 2011.

And Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California Gov. Jerry Brown want to talk to Xi about Chinese investment in high-speed rail, which has come under scrutiny and has lost some public support here in recent weeks with the release of several studies suggesting major cost overruns.

But the biggest part of the “Mr. Xi goes to Hollywood” story is for him to make as many contacts in the cinema industry as possible. The goal is to jump-start the Chinese industry, says to Clayton Dube, associate director of the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California.

“This is a very, very big issue for the Chinese, who have been very successful in developing their own economy and high-tech products, but their films have not traveled well,” says Mr. Dube.

He mentions a recent film called “Flowers of War” with Christian Bale that was the most expensive film ever made in China but didn’t do well in China or the US. The Chinese are interested in films that do very well globally – and that has meant big special effects and 3-D movies in the mold of “Avatar” and “Transformers.” 

Dube says China wants to mimic US “soft power” – its ability to influence world culture.

“Soft power refers to the ability to have people attracted to you, and that is what the US has in abundance and what Xi wants to know more about,” says Dube.

He says the Chinese have developed their own “China’s Got Talent,” with three judges based on the American model. A 65-year-old grandmother recently won by dancing to Michael Jackson’s hit, “Beat it.”

“The Chinese are very frustrated that it was Hollywood and not them which came up with ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ " he says, talking of the recent animated hit. “They said, 'Hey, Kung Fu is ours, Pandas are ours. Why can’t we do that?' ”

Dube and others say that, as the Chinese try to learn to create like Americans, Hollywood will use Xi’s visit to talk about Chinese investment in American films.

The L.A. visit will also be a time to loosen the collar a bit, say other analysts.

"This visit is coming at a sensitive time, in that Apple has come under criticism for working conditions at its plants in China, and tensions are escalating as iPads are being seized over a trademark dispute with a company in Shenzhen,” says Maria Toyoda, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia, in an e-mail. “So, piracy may be an issue that would be raised in a delicate way, if at all."

"This visit is mostly about trade," she says. "Xi wants to head off any tensions, business people on both sides are using the coattails of this visit to cut deals, and California mayors are looking for investment and job growth.”

After urging the US on Wednesday to reduce its “misunderstanding and suspicion” of China, Xi will have the chance to share hot dogs with Mayor Villaraigosa at L.A.’s other major world attraction that interests the Chinese: the Los Angeles Lakers. They will attend a game Friday night against the Phoenix Suns at StaplesCenter.

Dube says Kobe Bryant’s jersey was the biggest selling NBA item in China last year, and even women in rural areas know key statistics, trades, and game nights. 

T-shirts and bags in China read: “ ‘Huren Dui’, which means 'Men of the Lake Team,' " says Dube. “Xi will be a very popular man all over China for having gone to see them live on their home court.”

And that’s just one side of the equation.

“A visit like this is meant to show Xi to Americans as a much warmer and down-to-earth personality, and more approachable" than former President Hu Jintao, says Carla Freeman, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It sends a signal that the Chinese are interested in more than just politics in Washington, but America as a whole and as a people.”

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