China’s president-in-waiting heads to Washington for a visit crucial to both nations

February 13, 2012

The man who is expected to become China’s next president will arrive in Washington on Monday for a visit crucial to his political ascension and also to U.S. hopes for easing the mounting tensions between two of the world’s most powerful nations.

Xi Jinping is regarded as more self-confident and gregarious than President Hu Jintao, the famously stiff leader he is on track to succeed next year in a highly choreographed transition that includes, as a major step, this week’s visit.

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.”

That confidence, however, has a flip side. In the past, he has been equally quick to throw sharp barbs at the West.

“Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us,” he told a group of Chinese expatriates in Mexico in 2009. “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”

But in recent days leading up to this week’s visit, Xi appeared to be sounding a more conciliatory note, telling the Post in a written statement, “The vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States. We welcome a constructive role by the United States in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region. We also hope that the United States will fully respect and accommodate the major interests and legitimate concerns of Asia-Pacific countries.”

And responding to recent criticisms of Chinese economic policies, including strict control of its exchange rate, Xi also said, “China and the United States have become highly interdependent economically. Such economic relations would not enjoy sustained, rapid growth if they were not based on mutual benefit or if they failed to deliver great benefits to the United States.”

Xi ascended through the ruling Communist Party’s elite circles as a “princeling” — part of a new generation of Chinese leaders whose parents were high-level revolutionary party members. Today, such rhetoric in many ways appeals to a rising sense of Chinese nationalism.

That consciousness is likely to exert a consistent force during Xi’s U.S. visit, as he is expected to show his audience back home that he can represent his country with confidence and authority, said Robert Kuhn, an author, adviser and confidant to China’s senior leadership.

A trip to Iowa, for example, where Xi will reconnect with former hosts from his 1985 trip, is intended to show “he knows how to reach out to the American people and that he is a man of the people,” said Kuhn, who has discussed the trip with Xi’s aides. A later stop in Los Angeles is meant to highlight Xi’s business acumen, while a rumored appearance at a Lakers basketball game is designed to show he has personality.

Much of the visit intentionally mirrors the one made in 2002 by Hu, just before he assumed China’s presidency from Jiang Zemin.

The careful choreography in many ways shows how dramatically Chinese leadership has changed since the days of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Today, the country is ruled through consensus by nine members of the Communist Party’s all-powerful Standing Committee. The title of president is mostly a foreign construction for a role more aptly described as first among equals.

Xi’s rise to the top, however, was not preordained. When he was a teenager, he and his family suffered under some of China’s harshest policies. In an interview with The Washington Post in 1992, while Xi was a party secretary in Fuzhou, he described being locked up at age 15 for the alleged crimes of his father, Xi Zhongxun, who was purged and accused of disloyalty by Mao in 1962. Xi endured daily “struggle sessions” during which he was forced to denounce his father. He spent seven years laboring in the countryside.

Although he was later restored to power, the elder Xi fell from favor again for expressing sympathy with students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, a little-mentioned fact in his son’s official biographies.

In a 2003 interview on the state-run CCTV, the younger Xi reflected on his turbulent youth, saying, “When the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realized, it proved an illusion.”

Vice President Biden, who will act as Xi’s official host this week, said Xi has been similarly candid with him about China’s present and future.

“He genuinely is open about the nature and extent of their problems,” Biden told reporters after a visit to China in August, “what they’re going to have to deal with, short-term and long-term.”

Such problems, however, are likely to be put on the back burner for this week’s trip, during which the main focus for the Chinese will be burnishing Xi’s image.

Highlighting just how crucial the U.S. trip is to Xi’s slow-moving coronation over the next year, American organizers at each stop say their Chinese counterparts have been negotiating each detail with an insistence and thoroughness that borders on paranoia.

“The key thing is to not make any mistakes,” said Green, who helped the White House plan Hu’s trip to Washington a decade ago. “He just has to go through the ritual and survive it.”

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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