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.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Demonstrators line up to welcome the arrival of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in Washington on Tuesday.

Who is Hu? That is a question US officials have been asking themselves for nearly a decade about China’s wooden and uncommunicative leader Hu Jintao. And they still don’t have an answer.

  Today, when President Obama meets Xi Jinping, the man slated to take over Mr. Hu’s job next autumn, he will be hoping it will be a little easier to strike up a personal rapport  with the man expected to run China for the next 10 years.

 As the US and China clash over a wide range of political and economic issues, “their two leaders need to feel they have a good read on each other at a personal and political level,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

 Nobody expects any breakthroughs on the questions that divide Washington and Beijing during Vice President Xi’s visit. Instead, this is a mood-setting trip, giving Mr. Obama a chance to take the measure of China’s next leader and offering Mr. Xi an opportunity to get a better feel for America.

The trip is also important to Xi for his own political reasons. He is generally expected to become the head of the ruling Communist party next autumn, and to take over the Chinese presidency early next year.

“His capacity to deal with the US in a way that induces respect and to show that he can handle the US effectively…is extremely important” to his peers in Beijing, says Professor Lieberthal.

Officials and analysts on both sides of the Pacific point to a fundamental flaw in the most important bilateral relationship in the world: Neither side trusts the other.

“The trust deficit sums up a very clear fact,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said here last week. “The level of mutual trust between China and the United States lags behind what is required for the further expansion of our bilateral relationship. Vice President Xi’s visit will present a very important opportunity to further enhance our mutual trust.”

The list of policy issues over which Beijing and Washington differ is long and varied. It includes how to handle Iran’s nuclear program, the value of the Chinese currency, the Renminbi, how to deal with the Syrian government, trade disputes, investment opportunities for US firms in China and the roles both sides want to play in the South China Sea.

“The relationship is not in good shape and there is a lot of competition in various spheres,” says David Shambaugh, a China expert at George Washington University.

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.

 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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