How can Xi Jinping project strength in first handshake with Trump?
Body language experts suggest ways Xi can counter Trump’s meet-and-greet power play
As video clips of US President Donald Trump’s arm-jerking, clasp-patting handshakes with world leaders and his own administration members have gone viral, the diplomatic world is trying to come to grips with a gesture that breaches etiquette and protocol.
This may be an issue Chinese officials are questioning as both sides negotiate a possible meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Trump at the G20 in July – how can China get the upper hand in this mano a mano presidential matchup?
Trump’s forceful handshake belies his desire to take control, experts said, and to show that he is the boss. This should come as no surprise as it the role he is best known for from 14 seasons of his reality show, “The Apprentice”.
US body language coach Patti Wood summed up the tics of the handshake Trump has displayed to the world since becoming president.
“He grabs tightly, jerks the other’s hand towards him, extends the length of time past the normal three second count by not letting go till it seems he feels he has ‘won’ the handshake,” she said. “And patting a hand after you have grabbed and jerked it and not let it go, indicates a desire to further bully the receiver, symbolically saying, with each pat: ‘I hit you. I hit you’.”
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s met Trump in front of cameras two weeks ago in the Oval Office, his facial contortions after his 19-second hand clasp by Trump focused global attention on this power play by the US president.
“He (Trump) offers his hand first, pulls his counterpart to his side, and taps the recipient’s hand. These are signs to say the recipients are ‘good little boys’, they are amateur and the real person in charge is Trump himself,” said Dr Leow Chee Seng, a professor of non-verbal communication and human behaviour at the IIC University of Technology in Cambodia.
So far, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the only national leader who has been seen to break Trump’s dominance during handshakes, by placing his own free hand on Trump’s upper arm to anchor himself during their greeting.
Handshakes between Chinese and US leaders have historically been vested with diplomatic import. In 1972, the handshake between Premier Zhou Enlai and then US president Richard Nixon broke a quarter-century impasse and made amends for a snub Zhou had received from then US secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who refused to shake his hand at the 1954 Geneva Conference on Vietnam and Korea.
Although such outright rejections are now rare even between bitter rivals, the half-hearted handshake between Xi and Japanese president Shinzo Abe at the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing was widely read as a telltale sign of strained relations, or as The Atlantic magazine described, akin to two school boys forced by the headmaster to patch up after a sandbox tussle.
On other occasions, Xi has seemed more relaxed. South China Morning Post reporter He Huifeng recalled shaking hands with Xi when he was touring Shenzhen and greeting onlookers.
“It was not a firm grip,” she said. “Xi is tall and he has a big hand. He shook hands one by one in a rather slow and non-hasty way.”
Behaviouralist Leow said there are ways for Xi to maintain his strongman image when he eventually faces Trump in hand-to-hand acknowledgement.
Xi must brace himself for Trump’s maverick manoeuvres so as to not be overpowered by his forceful tug. Leow recommended Xi position himself strategically and play offence.
“When shaking hands with Trump, Xi can stand to the left of Trump, reach out his right hand first with palm upward, pat Trump’s hand three times and stop the handshake first,” he said.
This piece of advice, it turns out, takes a page from Mao Zedong’s playbook.
Nixon described his meeting with Mao in his memoirs, writing Mao “stretched out his hand. So did I.” Mao shook his hand for a minute, Nixon recounted.
But Nixon had to improvise – because until then he had no assurances that Mao would even meet him.