Xi Jiping’s hall of mirrors
China’s Xi Jinping, comes across as a down home personality with a soft spot for rural values and the agricultural economy. But he has a mind steeped in Chinese nationalism devoted to making his country an equal of the United States.
The Vice President, who is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao in late 2012, has given little away during his five-day visit to the US. But his style has raised hopes that he will try to file down rough edges in China’s relationships with America and Europe. However, expectations of him as a foreign policy reformer may owe more to image manipulation than his basic convictions.
Xi does have a rural heart. He spent seven formative years of his youth working as a farm laborer during China’s Cultural Revolution. A reason was the falling out of his father, an early aristocrat of the Communist revolution, with Chairman Mao Zedong resulting in being exiled for rehabilitation to the countryside. The son’s exile happened separately but he won so much esteem while sharing the harsh lives of poor farmers that he was able to start his political career through the local Communist party cadre.
His visit to Muscatine, Iowa, today was both genuine and a propaganda coup for his audiences in China. In Muscatine, he saw for the first time that farming families do not need to live in suffering and deprivation or under the heel of corrupt local officials. His media handler said he wanted to relive a pleasant period of his life 27 years ago. Perhaps, that soft spot will help to boost American agricultural exports to China during his regime, especially as Beijing is scrambling to line up supplies to prevent food and meat shortages as people become richer.
But Xi also has closer ties to China’s military than Hu Jintao and he may be more raw-knuckled than previous Chinese leaders in standing up to the US on foreign policy issues. The warning came when he emphasized on Wednesday that the US must respect China’s “core interests”. Normally, this phrase is routine in diplomacy. Countries have red lines and do not expect them to be challenged by those professing peace and cooperation.
But the situation with China is different. China does not stand for values similar to those of the US. It is leery of democracy, personal freedoms, human rights, a free press, unfettered Internet and social media, and freedom of religion. The chief core interest of Xi’s regime, as those before him, will be to stay in power without compromising the one-party system installed after Mao established firm control over China.
Almost everything the Obama White House wants, apart from business expansion, affects this core interest. Xi’s own power in China will be affected by America’s refurbishing of its presence as a Pacific power, its affirmation of support for Taiwan, its desire to prevent extinction of Tibetan culture, its closer relations with India and its tough anti-regime agendas in Syria and Iran.
Despite growing wealth and military power, China cannot withstand the grinding US juggernaut especially as India and all South East Asians want a visible American economic and military presence in their region to prevent pressure on them from Beijing.
The outlines of the US relationship with President Xi are already drawn along these issues. Further complications stem from China’s ganging up with Russia against US and Europe on Syria in the UN Security Council. It is also alongside Russia in busting sanctions against Iran by continuing to expand trade partnerships in oil and beyond. Beijing trusts Moscow hardly at all but is hanging on its coattails to more easily deflect pressure from Washington and European capitals.
The question now is how far the US will go to pursue exports to China while borrowing from it to finance debt, as compared with emphasizing its own core interests of promoting human freedoms and securing a world where no military power can threaten neighbors to extract concessions.