A rare opportunity to see China’s leader up close and (sort of) personal
By Ian Austen
As the most powerful Chinese leader in generations, President Xi Jinping rarely bothers to glad-hand or to try charming a crowd. His public appearances in China are carefully crafted, with fawning cadres and adoring fans positioned around him.
So, when Xi landed in San Francisco last week to meet with President Joe Biden, to try to stabilize a relationship with the United States that has been spiraling downward, it provided a rare opportunity to see the Chinese leader up close and, at times, less filtered than usual.
There were a few moments when Xi turned animated — or the closest he gets to it — like when a group of Iowans he had met in the 1980s came through the receiving line at a gala dinner in San Francisco on Wednesday night. Xi’s face lit up as he greeted the man who had driven him around rural Iowa, when Xi was a young party official from Hebei province hoping to glean insights into America’s agricultural technology.
Earlier, the Chinese leader had compared presidential limousines with Biden as they met on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. And he thanked Biden for reminding him that his wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous Chinese soprano and folk singer, has a birthday Monday, as does Biden.
Xi said he had forgotten because he had been working so hard.
It was hardly an extraordinary performance for an ordinary politician, or even past Chinese leaders, but Xi’s appearance at the APEC summit was striking for one of the most self-contained Chinese leaders in decades, who reveals next to nothing about his personal life despite propaganda organs busily casting him as a man of the people.
The secrecy surrounding Xi has only grown more intense as he has concentrated his power by jailing and retiring political rivals and taking greater control of the civil government and the military.
Behind the scenes, during four hours of talks with Biden and an array of his national security and economic aides, Xi was typically controlled and careful, participants said. They reported that he spoke fluently on the topics that have divided Beijing and Washington but turned to his notes, and kept to script, when the subject turned to Ukraine or the turmoil in the Middle East.
None of what the Americans saw fundamentally changed their view of Xi — a Chinese leader with control over his emotions and an iron grip on his country.
He did not don a cowboy hat the way Deng Xiaoping did in Texas in 1979, or come bearing a stuffed panda for a 2-year old, the way Jiang Zemin did at the same APEC summit, in Seattle, three decades ago. At that summit, Jiang took extensive questions from American reporters; Xi took none, leaving Biden to answer questions about the summit meeting alone. Instead of speaking at another scheduled appearance, Xi submitted a written speech.
Nonetheless, the summit was a moment Xi had prepared for over the past five months, after remaining largely out of sight to U.S. officials, save for his one previous meeting with Biden, in Bali, last year. This past summer, he began receiving a series of U.S. officials, starting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
He invited former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for a visit to commemorate Kissinger’s 100th birthday — and ran a five-hour celebration, clearly intended to send the message that the United States’ opening to China, which Kissinger helped engineer, represented a golden era that should be reproduced.
All of this has led to a tonal change in the relationship; when Xi repeated his line that the planet was big enough for both countries, he was signaling that the two military, economic and technological superpowers could give each other some space.
But there were also hints of how his fundamental views remain unchanged, especially about the United States. Biden talks about a constructive competition between the two countries, telling reporters that “my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable, so it doesn’t result in conflict, that’s what I’m all about.”
Xi has always rejected the concept of a managed competition between the two countries.
“The No. 1 question for us is, are we adversaries or partners?” Xi said. “This is the fundamental and overarching issue.”
But Xi’s words may be less important than the imagery.
After his summit with Biden, the 70-year-old Chinese leader attended the gala dinner in San Francisco with American business executives, who he hopes will help stem the flow of foreign companies moving their investments out of China.
Xi mingled with the attendees, including Elon Musk of Tesla (who stayed only for cocktails), Tim Cook of Apple and his former Iowa hosts.
Some attendees said the dinner was an attempt by the Chinese to reach out to the American business community — and around the U.S. government, which has imposed sanctions on numerous Chinese firms and tightly restricted China’s use of U.S. chip technology.
After arriving, Xi stopped into a VIP reception, then he and other top Chinese officials formed a receiving line in a hotel ballroom, where he shook hands and took pictures with guests.
For dinner, Xi sat at a long table near the head of the ballroom, flanked by Evan Greenberg, CEO of the Chubb Corp., and Marc Casper, CEO of Thermo Fisher Scientific, both members of the China-focused groups that hosted the dinner.
“Xi practiced retail politics last night in ways that few Chinese leaders typically do,” Ryan Hass, a former China director for the National Security Council, who attended the dinner, said Thursday.
In his speech, Xi stuck mostly to friendly topics, comparing the U.S.-Chinese relationship to a tree that had “grown tall and strong,” and dangling the prospect of dispatching more giant pandas to California as “envoys of friendship.”
Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor at Cornell University, said Xi had spoken with equanimity and a touch of warmth, but the speech had a double edge: It invoked “the history of friendly ties between American and Chinese people to warn against treating China as an adversary,” she said.
The speech “felt like a bit of an outstretched hand,” Hass said, potentially reflecting the interest of Chinese leaders in rebuilding connections with the business community. “There were several hard-edged points in the places you would expect them, but the overall tone of the speech seemed designed to try to lower the temperature of tension in the relationship.”
The dinner itself was a polarizing affair, with critics of Xi saying it was shameful for American business leaders to spend up to $40,000 for a table at the event and be seen giving Xi several standing ovations.
An attendee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the backlash said Xi appeared animated in conversation at his table. His demeanor was a far cry from former Chinese leaders such as the showmanlike Jiang, who once played a steel lap guitar at a dinner in Hawaii. But the attendee noted that Xi, who is not known for being jovial, smiled often.