He is, for example, quick to mention his fondness for the American Midwest, having toured Iowa’s small towns in 1985 as a lowly provincial official, visiting farms and staying overnight in the cramped bedroom of a middle-class family, surrounded by their boys’ “Star Trek” figures.
In exclusive comments to the Washington Post, Xi said of that trip: “I was deeply impressed by America’s advanced technology and the hospitable and industrious American people. That visit drove home to me the importance of closer exchanges between our peoples and gave me a better understanding of China-U.S. relations.”
But it remains unclear whether Xi’s familiarity with U.S. culture will help lead to warmer relations between the countries after years of intensifying economic and military rivalry. So far, he appears no less likely than previous Chinese leaders to resist demands for expanded human rights at home or to rail against Westerners for meddling in Chinese affairs.
This week’s visit, however, could indicate whether Xi’s ascension might result at least in a more candid and productive rapport, current and former U.S. officials say.
“Right now, I think there’s a lot of concern in the administration and Congress that we’re heading for a very rough five to 10 years,” said Michael Green, who was a White House adviser on Asia under President George W. Bush. “If there’s a sense in his meetings here . . . that he’s a guy we could do business with, that could help.”
There’s little doubt that the United States and China have entered a rough period, with tensions over China’s economic policies and its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, among other issues. For its part, Beijing has sounded increasingly alarmed by the Obama administration’s shift of military resources toward Asia.
None of those issues are likely to be resolved during Xi’s visit, which includes meetings at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. Rather, U.S. officials say, the visit is an opportunity to build a relationship and to get a better sense of how Xi operates.
The few U.S. and foreign diplomats who have met with him at length say the stylistic differences between Xi and his predecessors are striking.
“He is clearly more comfortable operating without a script,” said one former senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. “With Chinese officials, you often encounter preordained formulas and points agreed to by the standing committee, and you expect them. He had a lot of confidence in his ability to make his points without the kind of preplanned script.”