Reading between the lines of Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit

Reading between the lines of Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit
Reading between the lines of Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit
Posted on 2012-02-22

On January 28, 1979, Deng Xiaoping visited the United States. That day happened to by the first day of the Lunar New Year according to the Chinese calendar, a time of ringing out the old and ushering in the new. That visit by Deng Xiaoping was a unique and special “diplomacy of heads of state” (首脑外交) between China and the U.S. In 1989, [following the Tiananmen crackdown], China-U.S. relations dramatically worsened, and it was another eight years before a Chinese leader visited the United States.

After the October 26, 1997, Jiang Zemin visit to the U.S. the process of reciprocal visits by heads of state became more systematized, becoming a more formal “pattern” (模式).

For example, in 2002, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both made visits to the United States, with Jiang bringing China-U.S. contacts during his tenure neatly to a close and pointing the way for future [relations], and Hu visiting the United States in order to reaffirm and continue Jiang Zemin-era policy on the relationship.

We see this same pattern playing out as we approach the 18th Party Congress [later this year]. In January last year, Hu Jintao visited the United States in what was billed at home as “a trip to set the tone” of the China-U.S. relationship. This year we have vice-president Xi Jinping (习近平) visiting the United States, the chief task being implementation of the various agreements made by the two heads of state (Hu Jintao and Obama) in January last year — and at the same time opening a new chapter.

According to customary practice and especially according to the principles of Chinese officialdom (官场规则), the significance of this visit by Xi Jinping is huge, but it will not spell any major breakthroughs. If we turn our lens back on Hu Jintao’s first U.S. visit in 2002 and compare it to previous visits by Jiang Zemin we can see quite easily that Hu Jintao was very restrained at the time.

Needless to say, this visit by Xi Jinping also shows some differences from the 2002 Hu Jintao visit. During the time of his visit, Hu Jintao was already president, but Xi Jinping’s succession must wait for the 18th Party Congress. Therefore, a number of politicians and analysts in Washington, D.C., have with little avail cast about in Xi Jinping’s remarks during this visit for signs of the personal style and leadership concepts motivating this future leader.

Tonight I read through Xi Jinping’s speeches, remarks and dialogues during this visit (some as passed along by the media and by members of the U.S. Congress), and I think there are three sentences in particular that are instructive.

First Sentence: “The vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States.”

This is something Xi Jinping said in a written interview with the Washington Post ahead of his U.S. trip, and in my view it has lasting charm.

There is another difference between this trip by Xi Jinping and that of Hu Jintao 10 years ago, and that is the fact that back in those days America was in the midst of a fierce war against terrorism, and it really needed China. Now the United States no longer talks about the war on terror. And since the second half of last year, in fact, the strategic center has shifted to the Asia-Pacific, something that has caused an uproar inside China and internationally.

Xi Jinping employs this somewhat poetic sentence to conceal a hard purpose in a softer sentiment, all at one time answering a whole series of questions. First of all, the fact of the U.S. shift to the Asia-Pacific has been wantonly exaggerated by some in the U.S. and China and elevated unnecessarily — particularly by certain dabbling experts in China and by media claptrap. Even the additional posting of a few score members of the U.S. Marine Corps has been read by these people as a “containment of China” (围堵中国) and as a sign of impending war.

This sentence from vice-president Xi Jinping clearly states that if the United States completely respects and makes allowances for the legitimate demands and core interests of various Asia-Pacific nations, and if it works constructively for the peace, stability and prosperity of the region, then China will not oppose the U.S. present in Asia — China welcomes you.

But these words carry a sting as well. On the one hand, they suggest the Asia-Pacific is vast enough to accommodate you, the United States. On the other hand, they imply that the Asia-Pacific can and in fact must accommodate China. The American presence in Asia should not and cannot push out Chinese power.

Finally, this sentence marks the first time a high-level Chinese leader has so conspicuously put China and the United States together, referring to both as “great nations” (大国). This signals a slight departure from the era of excessive modesty (谦虚), or even self-abasement, from the strategy of “hiding one’s capacities and biding one’s time” (韬光养晦). China has stepped onto the stage of major power foreign relations. This sentence was full of suggestion, foreshadowing the fact that the Xi Jinping visit would evince a great nation bearing.

Second Sentence: “There are words in a popular Chinese song that go like this, ‘Dare to ask where the road is; the road is right under your feet.’”

When talking about China-U.S. relations Xi Jinping used a number of interesting expressions, most of which have never before been used by previous leaders. He said, for example, that China-U.S. relations “are without precedent and without the guide of prior experience, so [we] can only ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’ (a reference to Deng Xiaoping’s statement on Chinese economic reforms), or “cut paths across the mountains and build bridges across the rivers” (words used before by Hillary Clinton).

The above remark by Xi Jinping addresses a predominating view, which is that we have never in history has a precedent for a dominant power and a rising power that coexist peacefully and not come to blows. And the view that “China and the U.S. cannot avoid war” (中美必有一战) has it market both ins China and the U.S.

During his visit, Xi Jinping also used a very affirmative statement [for the China-U.S. relationship], saying that, “Eliminating various obstacles to continue as friends and as partners, is the only correct choice in the bilateral China-U.S. relationship.” Words like “the only” (唯一) have seldom been used in the context of [China's] foreign relations before, particularly with the United States. Because in the China-U.S. relationship, China has always been in a position of relative weakness. How the relationship has developed has been largely determined by the views and actions of American policy-makers, and China has had no choice but to “calmly cope” (沉着应对) with the situation. A leader in a passive position will no use an expression like “the only correct choice.”

Clearly, a great nation wants to move from a “passive” posture to an “active” one, and this sentence amounts to Chinese leaders saying they will move from a passive to an active position in China-U.S. relations, that they have the confidence and the capacity to develop the bilateral relationship.

The phrase “dar[ing] to ask where the road is” shows Xi Jinping’s sense of confidence. When he says that there are no precedents to set the tone in the China-U.S. relationship for the future, this implies that the future path will rely on future leaders, and it also suggests that he will take a new road as new circumstances merit.

Third Sentence: “On the question of human rights, there is no best, only better.”

While the Taiwan issue is still the biggest one in the China-U.S. relationship, Beijing has adjusted its policies since Ma Ying-jeou came to office, and the situation has already changed. I’m confident that Chinese on both sides of the straits have the capacity to resolve their own issues. Moreover, if extreme events can be avoided, the possibility of the United States turning back and entangling itself deeper in the Taiwan issue is increasingly unlikely.

As for other issues in the China-U.S. relationship, such as trade issues, border disputes in the South China Sea, piracy issues, energy and climate issues, environmental protection, etcetera — none of these are major issues, and all perhaps are within the realm of the “controllable”. Certainly, they will not really impact the larger China-U.S. relationship.

The biggest issue between the U.S. and China remains ideological in nature, about political systems and values. These issues emerge in bilateral talks over the question of human rights. Human rights issues have been entangled with China-U.S. relations for a very long time, and these are not easy to resolve.

During Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Senator John McCain criticized China’s human rights record. Their criticisms, moreover, were voiced in severe and seemingly unfriendly tones. But astonishingly, Xi Jinping’s response showed great capability and offered food for thought.

I call his response “astonishing” first of all because it differs from the attitude other national Party leaders have had on this issue, and secondly because Xi Jinping’s response this time was calmer, more reasonable, and even elegant in comparison to this attitude when he visited Mexico three years ago.

After Biden criticized China’s human rights record, Xi Jinping emphasized: “On the question of human rights, there is no best, only better.” Some commentators inside China have read this as a jab by Xi Jinping against a U.S. human rights situation that isn’t ideal, and this certainly makes sense when you consider that other leaders have said as much in the past. But I think the remark from Xi Jinping shouldn’t be understood in this way, particularly if you consider the official Chinese translation: “Of course there is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights.”

One commentator on Phoenix TV suggested this translation was off, but I would suggest that while we often have seen inaccurate translations from the foreign ministry in the past, this is not such as case. Once translated into English, this sort of neutral remark, that “there is no best, only better,” leaves America wondering exactly what you mean to say — which is to say, it’s as though it wasn’t said at all.

Later, when Xi Jinping responded to McCain’s criticisms over the issue of human rights in Tibet, he spoke more directly. According to McCain’s own statement on the exchange, Xi Jinping’s response was: “McCain, your bluntness is well known in China.” He then continued: “We have a long road ahead of us. And as you know, America also had many problems in the past.” McCain said that while Xi Jinping did not directly answer his questions on human rights, he views the exchange as “open and frank.” The meeting happened behind closed doors.

In fact, McCain has an insufficient understanding of Chinese political culture. Not only did Xi Jinping answer him, but in fact, in my view, the answer was ingenious. When Xi pointed out that “America also had many problems in the past,” he was affirming America’s progress; and when he said that, “We have a long road ahead of us,” he had two meanings, not just admitting that China had its shortcomings (that the country is where America was in the past) but also pointed to China objective (becoming a developed nation). Generally speaking, countries around the world share a basic standard in thinking on human rights. But owing to differences in economic development, cultural background and other factors, the human rights situations in various countries differ markedly. The crux is not whether there are gaps, but how these gaps are seen and understood.

While Xi Jinping did talk about China’s national circumstances and culture, this is the first time, to my recollection, that a Chinese leader has not raised the issue of human rights “standards” (标准) when facing questions from Americans on human rights. In the past, our national leaders have routinely said that there are differences in the way our two countries understand and assess human rights. What you Americans see as good, we see as bad. It’s this way of thinking that has China coming out with its own “White Paper on Human Rights in the United States” (美国人权状况白皮书) whenever the U.S. issues its own white paper on China’s human rights situation. This spirals into a war of words over whose human rights situation is the best.

But these people should study Xi Jinping’s remarks: there is no best, only better. There is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights.

Given its level of development, China’s human rights situation cannot be compared to that of the United States and other Western countries, which are far more prosperous. There is no shame in this. But if for the sake of face you wield the power and privilege in your hands to twist the facts and defy generally recognized human value standards, setting up your own human rights “standards” for your exclusive benefit, this is shameful.

This article, written on February 16, 2012, was published in Chinese in World Chinese Weekly and also posted to Yang Hengjun’s weblog.

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