Xi Jinping

Xi's US charm offensive wins kudos

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am


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At the start of last week, as Vice-President Xi Jinping was about to begin his much-watched visit to the United States, it was invariably dubbed a 'getting to know who Xi is' trip, or Xi's coming-out party on the world stage.

On Friday evening, before his return home, China's leader-in-waiting had good reasons to declare his visit 'a full success'.

Indeed, Xi, and his public relations strategists, should be given high marks for choreographing his five-day, cross-country visit, which not only presented Americans with the self-assured and folksy sides of China's future leader, but it also helped boost China's 'soft power'.

During the five days, Xi's trip featured a 'near summit' with US President Barack Obama, sparring with US officials over long-standing trade and human rights issues, mingling with farmers, entertaining students, hobnobbing with Hollywood elites and business tycoons, and ending it by watching a LA Lakers basketball game.

His efforts to reach out to the Americans appeared to have been well-received by the usually critical mainstream US media, which noted that Xi was at ease around his American hosts, be they officials or farmers, while exuding a self-assured demeanour.

Inevitably, Xi's easy-going style was compared with the usually wooden and formal-looking President Hu Jintao, who is slated to step down in October, making way for Xi to steer the world's second-largest economy for the next 10 years.

Xi's official host, US Vice-President Joe Biden, was duly impressed. 'This is a little unusual for any foreign leader, particularly a Chinese foreign leader, to want to expose themselves as much to the American public as he has,' Biden said.

Indeed, while Xi stuck to Beijing's official positions on long-standing issues of concern, he also cited philosophers and poets - including the 16th-century British philosopher Francis Bacon, and the 19th-century American writer Edward Bellamy - and even a popular Chinese song in trying to explain China's positions, as well as to define the way forward for the complicated US-Sino ties.

Xi regaled a group of Los Angeles students with his hobbies of reading books and watching American sports such as basketball, baseball and football. He described it as 'mission impossible' for him to find more time to relax, borrowing the title of the blockbuster US movie.

As many analysts have rightly noted, Xi's trip was as much aimed at the Americans as it was towards mainlanders at home, as China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition gets under way.

On that score, Xi also did well, judging by the positive comments from mainland internet users.

Other analysts are also right in saying that Xi's visit was long on style but short on substance. At a time when China and the US are both bracing for an important political transition, neither is likely to make major concessions.

But befitting the Chinese culture, Xi still brought 'gifts', including deals to import several billion US dollars worth of soya beans and to ease rules to allow American films into mainland cinemas.

Xi has chosen a less confrontational approach when addressing thorny issues such as those concerning trade and human rights. On trade, he cited figures to show how the Americans have gained from cheaper imports from China in arguing that closer bilateral co-operation would be a win-win scenario. And in his defence of China's human rights record, Xi also cited a well-known line from a Chinese advertisement in saying, 'There is no best, only better'.

Of course, it is too early to tell how much of Xi's soft diplomacy and folksy style will be reflected in future Sino-US ties.

But other Chinese leaders can certainly learn from Xi's public relations success on how to reach out to foreigners and improve China's 'soft power'.

And Xi can score even more points if he brings along his glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan , a popular and accomplished singer, on his next overseas trip.