Xi Jinping

Getting to know you - Xi Jinping

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


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The eagerly awaited visit of Vice-President Xi Jinping to the United States this week could help him boost his stature at home while offering US officials a chance to learn more about him before he takes over as Communist Party chief this autumn.

After a once-in-a-decade leadership change, Xi will succeed Hu Jintao as president in March next year.

'That will largely be a get-to-know-you trip - one that President Hu did a decade ago - aimed at building person-to-person relations in preparation for the leadership change,' Professor Jin Canrong, a Sino-US affairs expert at Renmin University, said.

Lu Ting, chief China economist for Bank of America's Merrill Lynch unit, agreed the main purpose of the visit, which begins on Tuesday, is to help Xi and US leaders get more familiar with one another. 'The visit should be more about exchanging views than negotiating real deals, as Xi is not the president yet,' Lu said.

In an interview last week, US ambassador to China Gary Locke called Xi 'a very personable individual'.

'We don't know how he would respond to some of these economic issues, which is why it's so important that we establish that relationship as quickly as possible,' Locke told PBS television.

Stephen Perl, chief executive of China Mart Los Angeles, which will host the Chinese business delegation on Thursday, said he hoped the trip would help US citizens learn more about Xi on a personal level, so fears about China's rise would not affect Washington's future decisions.

'And we want to keep developing the long-term business relationship with China,' Perl said.

Xi's visit comes 10 years after then-vice-president Hu made the same journey. While both countries and their methods of diplomacy have changed, much remains the same.

In 2002, Hu arrived in Washington and New York as something of an amiable enigma at a time when he was preparing to take over power from Jiang Zemin .

But while Hu had to traverse a minefield of sorts amid hawkish Republican rule after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Xi will face an America in the grip of an economic downturn and political wrangling, as US President Barack Obama is engaged in a tough re-election campaign.

Many of the policy questions remain the same - the trade deficit, the value of the yuan, market access for US businesses, North Korea and regional security - as they did at the time of Hu's visit, but they have grown more intense since 2002.

Xi will be the most senior Chinese leader to visit the US since Obama announced in November a new strategic focus on Asia to counter China's growing assertiveness in the region and then called in his state-of-the-union address last month for a tough trade policy towards China.

With those challenges hanging over his head, analysts say, Xi's ability to make personal connections, coupled with his unassuming confidence, will stand him in good stead as he takes over as leader of the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy.

Xi, 58, faces the tricky task of advancing China's development against the headwinds of global financial woes, resource scarcity, environmental crises, simmering political unrest globally and widespread discontent at home.

In his meeting with Obama, Xi will offer reassurances that China remains committed to healthy relations despite occasional turbulence. He said as much during a recent meeting with former US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson.

'It's vital for China, the United States and the world at large under the current economic context to strengthen reciprocal and mutually beneficial Sino-US economic and trade ties,' Xi said.

A range of factors, including the global economic downturn, rising challenges to the Communist Party's authority and the increasing assertiveness of the US in the Asia-Pacific, suggest a rough road ahead for the president-in-waiting.

International ire over China's veto of a proposed UN resolution on Syria may offer a taste of things to come.

Xi may have indirectly reflected concerns among the leadership about negative internal and external trends in a recent, remarkably conciliatory speech before his trip.

'No matter what changes affect the international situation, our commitment to developing the Sino-US co-operative partnership should never waver in the face of passing developments,' he said.

As hawks and hardliners have gained ground in domestic politics before the upcoming US presidential and congressional elections, Xi's chief mission this week will be to lessen the mistrust.

Analysts say Xi is also likely to press Obama and his administration not to adopt policies that could hurt China's US dollar assets.

Two-thirds of China's US$3.2 trillion in foreign reserves are in dollar-backed assets.

Xi is also expected to press for an easing of restrictions on hi-tech exports to China and for less discrimination against Chinese state firms wishing to invest in the US.

Before he was promoted to his position in the national leadership, Xi was known for his open-mindedness as party chief of the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang and the municipality of Shanghai.

But as the son of a revolutionary leader, Xi Zhongxun, he is also known for not backing down in the face of challenges.