Xi Shows Off American Tastes, Citing Hemingway, `House of Cards'

What President Xi of China Speech Means for Investors
  • Recalls sipping mojitos to channel `Old Man and Sea' author
  • Says China graft crackdown no Frank Underwood-style power play

Facing a houseful of U.S. business elites looking for reassurance over China’s intentions, President Xi Jinping showed off a fondness for American culture, mentioning everything from Hemingway to “House of Cards,” to make his case for “deepening understanding” between the two countries.

In a policy speech in Seattle to start a week-long U.S. trip, Xi portrayed himself as a student of cultural understanding. To better comprehend Ernest Hemingway-- “The Old Man and the Sea” is among his favorite books -- Xi said he visited the El Floridita bar in Havana to sample the mojitos at one of the writer’s preferred haunts, which features a life-sized bronze of the Nobel Prize winner. 

President Xi Jinping speaks in Seattle, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015.
President Xi Jinping speaks in Seattle, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015.
Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

"We want to deepen mutual understanding with the U.S. on each other’s strategic orientation and development path," Xi told the audience that included such luminaries as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who played a central role in Richard Nixon’s efforts to establish diplomatic ties with China. "We want to see more understanding and trust, less estrangement and suspicion in order to forestall misunderstanding and miscalculation."

Xi’s trip "marks an historic turning point" in China-U.S. relations, said Kissinger, who introduced Xi to the guests. In the 35-minute speech, Xi mentioned a host of other great American scribes including Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Jack London, saying he has read them all. In a tribute to Seattle -- hosting its fourth consecutive top Chinese leader -- Xi said the 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle" made the city a household name in China.

‘Word Performance’

Xi -- a self-confessed Hollywood movie buff who counts "Saving Private Ryan" among his favorites -- gave a shout-out to American television, citing the hit Netflix Inc. series to dispel concerns about a darker side to his flagship anti-corruption campaign that has snared more than 140,000 high-ranking "tigers" and lowly "flies.”

"This has nothing to do with power struggle. In this case, there is no ‘House of Cards,’" Xi said, referring to criticism from some analysts that the campaign was more a Frank Underwood-like effort to purge political enemies than weed-out graft.

Perry Link, a veteran China scholar and professor at the University of California at Riverside, said Xi was using his speech to charm his hosts without making big concessions. 

“Xi’s goal is to do a word performance that will have two effects: One, back home, to make him look great to the Chinese people and especially to his political rivals and, two, to bamboozle the Americans into temporary immobility," Link said. "The American hosts, with rare exceptions, will be bamboozled."

Eating Meat

Xi also got a taste for local American fare at the dinner. Guests at the Westin Hotel dined on pan-seared Washington beef, wasabi rhizome mashers, baby beets, Brussels sprouts, baby zucchini and baby squash in a Syrah demi-glace. Dessert was a Theo Chocolate marquise dome on a brown butter pistachio cake, blood orange and finger lime caviar.

In a version of the American Dream with Chinese characteristics, Xi recounted his own experience of overcoming adversity to explain how far China still needed to develop. Xi was one of millions of urban youth sent to the countryside to work as peasants during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. 

He said he experienced the hardship and deprivation of life in rural China and that his early ambition as a local official was to make sure "everybody in the village could have meat to eat." He told his American guests that they shouldn’t be fooled by three decades of phenomenal economic growth and that China still remained the world’s biggest developing country.

It wasn’t an all-American speech. Xi reached for a Chinese idiom while trying to explain how the two countries could find common ground despite their differences.

"Peaches and plums don’t talk, but the path forms beneath them," Xi said.

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