Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the U.S. comes at an interesting time. Many Chinese feel their country is no longer junior but on course to eclipse the U.S. as the world's reigning superpower someday, and should be treated with a new respect. Others are increasingly nervous about the nation’s economy after a slowdown in growth, the recent Chinese stock market collapse, and Beijing’s chaotic currency devaluation.
That ambivalence is on display in China’s blogosphere, where explosions of patriotic outrage at how Xi's American hosts are treating him are mixed with sarcastic references to the Chinese government as censor and leader of a nation of copycats.
“Even a village chief eats better than you did—how wretched,” wrote one commenter on Sina Weibo on Wednesday, of a banquet Xi attended.
“This meal was too expensive—worth [the price of 300 planes]?” asked another, alluding to China’s $38 billion order of Boeing jets, announced on Thursday when the Chinese president visited the company’s factory in Everett, Washington.
One blogger took offense at the aesthetics: “They didn’t even hire a professional designer for the menu? It’s so ugly!” Another, perhaps a victim of China’s recent stock market rout, wrote that Chinese traders “are through—there is no way we can even eat.” Still another wondered where on earth Xi, who mentioned House of Cards in some remarks, found time to watch the Netflix series, with all China's problems to solve.
President Xi, who has completed the first leg of his U.S. trip, in Seattle, and moved on to Washington, D.C., has intensified a crackdown on free expression in China during his three years in charge. China’s 668 million Internet users still like to vent online.
In a speech at the banquet, the only policy address to be given on the weeklong U.S. visit, Xi emphasized the shared interests of the two nations, mentioning the intertwined economies, joint work to combat nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and Xi’s aim to cut China’s armed forces of two million by 300,000. He used the words “cooperate” or “cooperation” 22 times in his address, while “friend” or “friendship” and “peace” or “peaceful” each got 10 mentions. With growing worries that China is dragging its feet on continuing to open its economy to foreign investors, “reform” also got heavy play, with 16 mentions.
Some Chinese don’t seem to be buying it.
The U.S. “is a Bully Nation who wants to have control over China and everyone around the planet. President Xi has to be strong and firm on his agendas. Otherwise [President Barack] Obama will run all over him, like a pack of hyenas,” wrote one commenter in English on the China Daily’s website. “I believe there will be a lot [of] talks, signings and promises, but in the political theater circle. There will be a lot of empty promise, as we often see.”
It is on the web that most Chinese get their news about the U.S.-China relationship, according to a survey published Sunday by the official English language China Daily website and the Communication University of China, a journalism school. While 17.1 percent of young Chinese believe the U.S. is a “responsible country,” 44.1 percent don't, and 38.8 percent aren’t sure, according to the study. Americans, for their part, don’t have a very positive view of China, citing everything from the imbalanced trade relationship and Beijing’s holdings of U.S. debt to China’s human rights record and growing military power, a Pew Research Center survey released on Sept. 9 showed.
Xi’s first night in the U.S., on Tuesday, included the banquet, held at the Seattle Westin, with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates in attendance. (The menu, featuring pan-seared Double R Ranch Washington beef, steelhead roulade, and a 2013 Cabernet, was widely circulated and discussed on the Chinese web.) The signing of a pact in Washington, in which the two sides promise to restrict cyber-spying, is likely to be hailed as the biggest success of the visit.
But even before Xi met with Obama, some Chinese were voicing skepticism online.
“China is making a serious mistake, trying to make an alliance with North American companies and government institutions,” wrote one on the English website of the People’s Daily Online on Thursday. “You should not seek agreements in strategic sectors such as cyberspace, especially in the case of enemies.”
So far, Xi has taken pains to show his interest in American culture. In his Seattle speech he mentioned that he enjoyed reading Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Jack London in his youth. He added that he was “most captivated” by Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and made a point of visiting a Havana bar Hemingway liked, to order a mojito as the author would, on an earlier visit to Cuba.
“Why try to chum up? I love to read [Xi’s] favorite books, order the food [Xi] loves most” but does anyone care? wrote another, on the social networking site Tianya.cn.
The reference Xi made to House of Cards was intended to reassure Americans that his war against corruption isn’t being used as a political tool to bring down opponents, as some fear. That wasn’t the message many online Chinese commenters took from it.
“They have time to watch U.S. dramas?” one asked of the Chinese leadership. Another said, “Where did they watch this! Leaders are watching knock-offs? Or are they climbing over the wall?” That’s the Chinese phrase for circumventing China’s Internet censorship, usually through the use of virtual proxy networks, or VPNs.
Xi met with American tech leaders including Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Cisco’s John Chambers, as well as with the master investor Warren Buffett. With first lady Peng Liyuan, he visited Microsoft’s Redmond campus, where an annual U.S.-China Internet industry forum was being held.
For one commenter, that was a big mistake.
“Avoid visiting those hi-tech industries or corporates, please!” urged Ha Ha Ha on the People’s Daily Online English site on Wednesday. “Otherwise, they will wrongly, deliberately and falsely [accuse you of] stealing information and technologies when China comes up [with] something similar to theirs.”