Xi Jinping

Firmly grounded

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


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The American media reacted positively to Vice-President Xi Jinping's official visit to the US. Indeed, Xi's first major performance on the world stage has been impressive not only because he demonstrated the personable side of China's top leaders, a rare occurrence, but also because he stood firm and made clear China's position on key issues that have plagued Sino-US relations. The language he used was fresh, the analogies subtle and the logic of argument profound. Although most Chinese do not know Xi well, he has a reputation for having a firm character behind a gentle demeanour, or, to quote a Chinese expression, 'a needle hidden in silk floss'.

Did his American counterparts and China watchers grasp his most important messages, which were expressed through a pop song, a George Washington quotation and Chinese proverbs in a dialectic style of discourse? Perhaps not yet. The media likes him for his interest in American people and a melange of pop culture such as the earthy style of the Midwest, the tinsel town of Hollywood and the rambunctious NBA.

But, when it comes to three critical issues in dispute with the US government - trade, military tensions and human rights - Xi held onto China's position while nudging his American hosts in the direction of self-reflection rather than constant criticism of others from the moral high ground.

On human rights, for example, the typical Chinese reaction to Washington's criticism is to launch a counterattack. Xi seems to have adopted a more effective approach to make the point that both sides need to improve their record. He said in a speech that, on this question, 'there is no best, only better'. The implication, missed by the press, is that, throughout history, the development of human rights has been a course of continuous improvement and enhancement, and this is true of every country, including the US. Such an argument works well, for it does not deny that China needs to improve its human rights, but at the same time it debunks the universalistic myth that the Western political system means the 'end of history' for future human rights advances.

On military tensions in the Asia-Pacific, Xi made explicit his disapproval even before his arrival in Washington through a written interview with The Washington Post. 'At a time when people [in Asia] long for peace, stability and development, to deliberately give prominence to the military security agenda, scale up military deployment and strengthen military alliances is not really what most countries in the region hope to see.' In his opening remarks with Xi at the White House, President Barack Obama was visibly defensive, at once emphasising that the US 'is a Pacific country'. Xi has no illusion about the reality of the Sino-US strategic tensions. During his Pentagon visit, he expressed again the need to 'control and manage' the two nations' differences.

While trade and currency issues are considered far less explosive, Xi missed no opportunity to warn his hosts to remove export controls in hi-tech areas - a major cause of the US-China trade imbalance. He used trade statistics to illustrate how the US position in the hi-tech market in China had declined over the past decade due to its strategic suspicion of China.

His key message was that the two sides can no longer take the existing framework of engagement for granted and they must find new ways to build mutual trust. While Obama emphasised the 'rules of the road' which China must follow, Xi quoted a Chinese pop song to stress that there is not yet a fixed road in this bilateral relationship, not to mention fixed rules which are invented by the West, 'Where is the way, it is just under our feet', as the song goes. More interestingly, Xi pointedly expressed his concern about Washington's double-dealing tendency in recent years. 'Actions, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends,' Xi said, quoting the first US president, George Washington.

Xi is tough, congenial but also pragmatic. He represents what is misleadingly labelled by some American think tanks as the 'fifth generation' leadership. This generation, the third after the revolutionary veterans had faded from the scene, is in a sense the most 'mature' of the three. The reason is accidental, for they are a generation that has been through most of the ups and downs of the People's Republic.

The two generations before were technocrats, beneficiaries of both the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras. The Jiang Zemin generation, for example, not only had the opportunity to study in the pre-1949 college system, but also benefited from the need of the post-revolution reconstruction. Many, including Jiang, were even able to study in foreign countries, although no further than the Soviet Union and other East European states. The Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao generation are the most limited in experience, but also lucky; they were fortunate to be able to complete college education shortly before the Cultural Revolution and secured relatively well-paying jobs. This group reaped the accidental benefit of Deng's decision in the early 1980s to recruit young technocrats into the party hierarchy.

Xi's generation, however, saw their education disrupted and many, such as Xi himself and Li Keqiang, the premier-in-waiting, were sent to the countryside for a harsh 're-education' programme. Xi stayed there for six years. Such formative years not only hardened their will but also exposed them to the bottom of society. After rising through the party ranks under sharply contrasting social and political conditions, this generation has developed a real grasp of China's internal problems. Thus, their maturity comes from their unique experience.

Western China watchers tend to consider the coming leadership to be pampered, weak and fragile, because many of them have a 'princeling' background. But they misread their collective identity and character. This generation is pragmatic, flexible, less corrupt but also intensely patriotic, though not at all nationalistic, for they have witnessed China's tumultuous years and understand the difficulty of turning a poor and unstable society into one that is prosperous and relatively stable.

Many have a strong sense of mission to promote the people's well-being and, if the system needs serious repair, they may not drag their feet in launching reforms. This unique sense of history and stamina in politics and foreign relations will be a decisive factor for years to come.

Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva