Xi Jinping Goes to Iowa

Vice President Xi Jinping has concluded his visit in Washington, where he met with President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other top officials. Both sides reported that the meetings were smooth and his visit produced no surprises as he stuck closely to the script. From the Washington Post:

Xi, who is expected to become president in 2013, made clear that China wants a deeper relationship with the United States and even welcomes its engagement in the Asia-Pacific, as long as it respects China’s interests and concerns in its own neighborhood.

“It was a scripted trip without surprises,” said Jeff Bader, East Asia policy director during the first two years of the Obama administration. “He obviously wasn’t here to make policy, or make decisions or alter positions on issues. He is not the No. 1 yet and he doesn’t want to prejudice his chances of being No. 1.”

But while Xi, 58, has said little new — and did little to narrow the gaping differences that exist between the U.S. and China on issues such as human rights — he made a conscious effort to appear less remote than the stiff and aloof Hu.

“He’s more interactive than past Chinese leaders. He looks you in the eye, and you feel he’s conversing with you,” said Bader, who spoke briefly with Xi on Wednesday.

The Telegraph reports that beneath the friendly gestures, Obama may have been sending a stronger message to China’s future leader:

It was a full turn-out in honour of the man who will take the reins of power in Beijing this autumn, with Joe Biden, the vice president, supported by the US secretaries of state, defence, treasury, agriculture and commerce as a symbol of the breadth and importance of the US-China relationship in this, the “Asian” century. But, as the British pianist Sam Haywood played Gershwin and Chopin, it was not hard to detect the note of discord that jangles through that relationship. Disputes range from China’s undervalued currency, to trade practices, human rights abuses and the pressing security questions of Iran and Syria.

Mr Obama stayed within the realms of diplomacy, but his thinly veiled message to Mr Xi (pronounced “Shee”) in the Oval Office was that China needs to do more to reassure the world that it will be a force for good in the coming decades. In Chinese eyes it will have sounded dangerously close to the lecturing that so rankles in Beijing, but Mr Obama – looking at the cameras, not at his guest – was clear that China must trade by the same “rules of the road” as the rest of the world, recognise the “aspirations and rights” of ordinary Chinese, and live up to the “increased responsibilities” that come with expanding power and prosperity.

In the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash writes that it is impossible to predict what type of leader Xi will be and that observers who foresee a reformist agenda may be getting ahead of themselves:

As you would expect, the available evidence is thin and inconclusive. The fact that Xi suffered personally in the Cultural Revolution (“I ate a lot more bitterness than most people”), the reformist communist sympathies of his father, his evident pragmatism, the discovery that he has a sister in Canada, a brother in Hong Kong and a daughter studying under a pseudonym at Harvard: all this suggests someone who might push forward essential political reforms at home and be equipped with a better understanding of the west.

The fact that he has risen to the top by carefully staying on the right side of all the main groups in the communist establishment, his close ties to the People’s Liberation Army, his remarkable outburst in Mexico in 2009, denouncing “some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us“: these straws point to a potentially colder wind from the east.

Every little phrase and gesture in his current American trip will be pored over with neo-Kremlinological zeal, to identify him as either great reformer or hardnosed realist. Or, inevitably, “enigmatic”. As with Gorbachev, western leaders may get hints of the personality now, but we won’t really know until he’s firmly in the saddle, which means 2013 at the earliest.

Xi is now in Muscatine, Iowa, paying a visit to a family he stayed with on a previous trip in 1985 and to discuss agricultural trade. Iowan farmers are maneuvering to have Xi get a taste of their crops, and his official dinner tonight will feature a wide, and not very healthy, range of Iowan foods. From Bloomberg:

“It’s a celebration of Iowa foods, but this menu is over the top in terms of calories and the amount of food,” Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said in an interview. “There’s very little chance you’re going to walk out without eating all your day’s calories in one meal.”

The menu features two meat entrees — bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with cider and green peppercorns, and Angus beef tenderloin with a demi glaze and onion ring. Xi and his fellow guests will get a choice of three desserts, including crème apple pie cupcake topped with Iowa maple syrup frosting, blue cheese drizzled with Iowa honey, and mini Iowa sweet corn cheesecake.

[…] The dinner reflects food grown and raised in a state where residents are more likely than most Americans to be obese and overweight — and to eat fewer fruits and vegetables, according to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

After Iowa, Xi will travel to Los Angeles where he will meet with Governor Jerry Brown and attend an L.A. Lakers game.

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