SEATTLE — Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday pledged to fight cyberattacks — a major sore point for U.S. officials — in his first speech of a seven-day U.S. visit.
Xi said China is ready for a “high-level joint dialogue mechanism” on the issue with the United States, adding that China was a strong defender of cybersecurity and also a victim of hacking. He described thefts of online information as crimes, adding that “China’s government will not engage in cyberthefts or encourage such thefts by anyone.”
Xi’s remarks came as the Obama administration has privately debated unleashing economic sanctions on Chinese businesses for the cybertheft of U.S. intellectual property. The administration also fingered the Chinese for a cyberattack this summer that hacked into the personnel files of nearly 22 million government workers. China has denied responsibility.
Online security remains a major worry for U.S. officials, who plan to press the issue with Xi when he arrives in Washington.
“Cyber is an issue where we have not made the kind of progress we wanted to make,” Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said in a conference call Tuesday with reporters.
Rhodes said the preference is to resolve the issue with talks, but the United States is “not averse to punitive measures, including sanctions.”
In his speech, Xi mostly stressed his country’s ongoing economic reforms and sought to calm jitters about China’s turbulent stock market.
He wove personal stories and Chinese sayings into a speech that seemed aimed at stressing cooperation between the two nations, while also hinting that China — after decades of explosive growth — was no longer a weak player on the world stage.
He also warned against what he called “strategic miscalculation” when it comes to interpreting the intentions behind China’s government and economic policies.
“We must read each other’s strategic intentions correctly. Non-confrontation and willing cooperation is China’s foreign policy. We want to deepen understanding,” Xi said through an interpreter, urging the two nations to have “more trust and less suspicion.”
If a word cloud of Xi’s speech had been broadcast on the large screens above the packed audience, the word “reform” would have loomed large.
“The key to China’s development is reform,” Xi said at one point. He pledged to continue market reforms.
Xi acknowledged concerns about the steep drop this year in China’s stock market, noting that the government took steps “to prevent panic and ensure order.” That avoided “systemic risk,” he said, seemingly alluding to the phrase popularized during the U.S. stock market’s own woes. He said China’s stock market was now in “self-recovery and self-adjustment.”
He also defended his country’s decision to devalue China’s currency in August by making it more market-oriented. The act triggered stock market sell-offs worldwide. He said China will continue to allow the currency “to float both ways.”
Xi delivered his remarks at a welcome banquet hosted by several China-U.S. business groups at the Westin Hotel. He spoke before an estimated 750 people with a heavy business bent and featuring a roll call of major chief executives — including the top officials from Microsoft, Ford, Starbucks, DuPont, Dow Chemical and Hershey’s. Bill Gates was also there. Henry Kissinger introduced Xi before his speech.
The night’s toughest note was struck by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who began by praising China’s reforms before offering criticism. “We and our companies continue to have serious concerns with an overall lack of legal and regulatory transparency, inconsistent protection of intellectual property, discriminatory cyber and technology policies,” she said, “and more generally the lack of a level playing field across a range of sectors.”
Toward the end of his talk, Xi noted how captivated he had been by a range of American authors, including Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.
He recalled a visit to Cuba, where he visited a bar frequented by Hemingway, and where Xi even ordered one of Hemingway’s famous mojitos. That line drew a laugh from the audience.
Xi said he went to Hemingway’s bar to understand the author, “to feel him.”
It was important, he said, to have an understanding of different cultures.
David Nakamura contributed to this report.