China's Xi Struggles to Show Softer Side on U.S. Charm Offensive

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Xi's First Speech at UN: What Did He Accomplish?
  • Foreign Minister Wang had promised `people first visit'
  • Xi trip overshadowed by Pope Francis's Tour of America

Before Xi Jinping flew to the U.S., his foreign minister promised a “people first visit” that would showcase the Chinese president’s “extensive outreach to the American people.”

The aim of the trip, which included a state visit to Washington bookended by tours of tech companies in Seattle and an address to the United Nations, was two-fold: To present Xi as the strong leader of a rising economic and military power, while highlighting the softer side of a man who runs a Communist juggernaut that some neighbors and the U.S. view with wariness.

Xi came away from his U.S. visit with several agreements -- on issues like climate change and cybersecurity -- and a plan to buy 300 Boeing planes. Yet despite his talk of trust in the U.S.-China relationship, and a stop at a school where he was presented with a personalized football jersey, the trip provided little of the outreach that Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised.

“Xi looked stiff and over-rehearsed,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor who served as a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “He certainly appeared unspontaneous and anything but warm.”

The Chinese leader was hampered by timing, overshadowed by the media frenzy around Pope Francis’s visit that overlapped with his trip. Beijing carefully scheduled Xi’s itinerary with a longer stay in Seattle to avoid crossing paths with the Pope, a Chinese official said, but may have “underestimated” the influence of the leader of the world’s smallest state.

Xi’s welcoming ceremony at the White House also coincided with news House Speaker John Boehner will resign from Congress at the end of October. “The metrics look OK,” said Dreyer of Xi’s trip. “The optics, however, were bad. Xi was completely upstaged.”

Cowboy Hat

It’s become de rigueur for leaders to mingle when overseas to charm a local audience: When then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping made his first trip to the U.S. in 1979 he doffed a cowboy hat while attending a rodeo. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden dropped into a small eatery to order noodles while visiting Beijing in 2011.

Xi at home has made efforts to show he’s in touch by also visiting a dumpling house in Beijing where he lined up to order pork buns, and showcasing images of his family at his desk when delivering a recorded speech. As leader he’s stressed a more austere approach by the Communist Party, cracking down on lavish banquets and gifts and mounting a campaign against graft that has snared both high and low-level officials.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi-- once banned from visiting the U.S. -- has grasped the importance of showing his human side to audiences at home and abroad, cultivating 15 million Twitter followers and looking relaxed and chatty in a question-and-answer session with Facebook Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. The two even hugged, a contrast to Zuckerberg’s formal handshake with Xi.

Chatty, Laughing

“Xi Jinping’s definitely not the chatty, laughing, smiling type,” said Shi Yinhong, director of U.S. Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. Still, he did try to engage the U.S. public with a mention of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and U.S. cultural references in his Seattle speech, Shi said. 

While Xi may not have had a Biden moment, his wife, the popular Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan, showed a more personal touch, joining Michelle Obama to name a panda at the National Zoo in Washington and giving pointers to a singer at the Juilliard School in New York.

“He smiles, his wife also smiles,” said Shen Dingli, vice dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai. “These are, in my view, examples of China’s ever improving diplomacy and public diplomacy.”

And for all of his perceived stiffness, Xi looked more relaxed than predecessor Hu Jintao, who showed little interest in such gestures and attended his state dinner with Obama in 2011 without his wife.

Clinton Tweet

For Xi, the need to alleviate tension with the U.S. and reassure people of China’s intentions has increased with the anti-China rhetoric around the U.S. presidential election and prospective candidates like Donald Trump. His trip was promoted via a Facebook page called Xi’s U.S. Visit, a move clearly aimed at a foreign audience given that Facebook is blocked in China.

There were other hiccups: Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, took to her Twitter account Sunday and criticized China’s detention of five prominent women’s rights activists earlier this year. She called Xi “shameless” as he hosted a UN summit on women’s rights, prompting the state-run Global Times to describe her as a rabble-rouser.

Despite being squeezed out of airtime in the U.S., Xi fared better at home, where state-run media carefully framed his image. Official media carried almost no coverage of the Pope, as China and the Vatican don’t have diplomatic ties. State media splashed pictures of a smiling Xi during meetings with both Obama and U.S. business leaders.

“Ultimately, the most important thing is to address seriously the legitimate concerns of the business community” about access and security of intellectual property in China, said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. “Connecting on a personal level is important but what we also need to do is address the concerns of the business community.”

‘Most Welcomed’

Reports from the official Xinhua News Agency on the joint Xi-Obama press conference focused on Xi’s words. It omitted Obama’s comments that the two leaders had a “frank discussion about human rights.”

“Xi Jinping’s words still resonate, and fully demonstrated to the world on the confidences of Chinese leaders to the future of the country and China’s determination to pursue the road of peaceful development,” Xinhua said in a commentary.

The China News Service said Xi’s speech at the UN development summit on Saturday was the “most welcomed” one and noted dozens of global leaders lined up to shake his hand.

Xi’s three major speeches in the U.S. hewed to his previous lines -- that China is a victim of cyber-hacking and China’s expanded clout will not challenge the U.S. During a joint press conference with Obama, he read from a pad of paper marked with sticky notes.

“Many are struck by what seems to be the subdued and careful demeanor of Xi,” said Avery Goldstein, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. “Few Americans have a deep impression of Xi Jinping as a person or leader, and instead simply view him as important only because of his role as President of China.”

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, and David Tweed

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