Xi Jinping

Xi all smiles but still a mystery

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


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The hectic five-day US trip for China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, was orchestrated to show his stamina and boost his international profile, giving him a reputation of being much more personable than President Hu Jintao .

But, aside from the smiles and goodwill gestures, little is still known about the vice-president's work style and how he will handle the ups and downs of Sino-US ties, analysts say.

Xi's trip was widely seen as a chance for the US to get a glimpse of China's future leader.

But the trip proceeded amid uncertainty in bilateral ties, including heated disagreements on the handling of Iran's nuclear programme and deadly protests in Syria.

US claims of China violating fair-trade principles, and criticism of Beijing raised during the US presidential nomination race, made Beijing wary of problems during the trip.

Both sides maintained a friendly tone during high-level talks, calling Sino-US ties one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.

But they also appeared tough, with US President Barack Obama pressing China to play by the 'rules of the world' and Xi calling on the US to alter its economic policies.

The tough words were abandoned after Washington, Xi's first stop. In Iowa and Los Angeles Xi chatted casually with members of the public and promoted business ties. Both sides gave an upbeat assessment of the trip, with US Vice-President Joe Biden calling Xi a 'very direct' person.

'He's absolutely responsive,' Biden said of Xi. 'When we disagree, it's a clear statement of disagreement.'

University of Miami political science professor June Teufel Dreyer said Xi's trip was carefully structured to avoid embarrassment similar to that caused in Mexico in 2009, when he told the Chinese community there that there were 'well-fed foreigners' who had nothing to do but point fingers at China.

'He is careful in this trip to avoid mistakes,' she said. 'I think Americans may think, 'Well, probably Xi is someone we can hope to deal with'.'

Tao Wenzhao, a US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Xi's interaction with his old Iowan friends and students in Los Angeles left a good impression on Americans.

'His trip has enhanced the understanding of Chinese leadership among Americans, and the mutual trust between the two countries,' Tao said.

Xi made a stop in Muscatine, Iowa, to call on the people who hosted him 27 years ago, when he visited the town as a Hebei provincial official.

People at the gathering said they were impressed with Xi's recollection of details of the 1985 trip.

In Los Angeles, in addition to trade talks, Xi revealed his interest in Hollywood movies, the NBA and professional baseball.

In speeches and exchanges with students, Xi repeatedly cited literary references, ranging from traditional Chinese to 17th century British thinker Francis Bacon to 19th century American novelist Mark Twain.

Xi is not the first Chinese leader to try to burnish his image on a US trip. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping donned a 10-gallon cowboy hat while in Texas. And, in 2000, Jiang Zemin recited part of the Gettysburg Address in English on the 60 Minutes news programme. But Hu, Jiang's successor, was widely considered serious and stiff.

'I think he is sending a signal that he is different,' Clayton Dube, associate director of the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California, said of Xi.

'I think, for American audiences, he wants to send a signal that he is open, flexible and appreciates these aspects of American life.'

Orville Schell, from the Asia Society, said Xi's high-level reception in the US, which included a rare 19-gun salute and an honour-guard welcome by 350 military personnel at the Pentagon, boosted Xi's international standing.

'Also, his manner was very soft, and this was something people will react favourably to,' Schell said.

But, aside from repeating his predecessor's stance, Xi still did not reveal much of his thinking about Sino-US relations, analysts said.

'I don't think that a carefully choreographed visit like this one really tells us a lot about a leader,' Dube said.

'The most important things are not whether or not Xi can give a good speech, or whether he can play basketball. The important thing is his ability to guide and to set a course for people to follow. We have no way to know about this at present.'

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, an expert in Chinese affairs at the University of California at Irvine, said Xi remained a strange figure to Americans, even though nothing on his trip went unexpectedly wrong.

However, Schell said Xi's trip sent a major signal that both countries acknowledged differences between them but would jointly look for a resolution rather than letting the disputes escalate.

'Xi is signalling that there are times where the two countries won't always agree, but it does not mean that one side will leave the table when they get angry,' he said.

With the mutual trust established between Xi and Biden, who has been given the task of dealing with Washington's China affairs, Schell expected future exchanges between the two countries to be smoother.

'I believe Xi does not think Biden is anti-China,' he said.

'They are close enough and have commitments to each other to work things out.'