World·Analysis

President Xi's U.S. trip and the 'Chinese dream': Patrick Brown

The trappings of Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the U.S. are evidence China is getting the respect its leader thinks it deserves, Patrick Brown writes.

The trappings of his state visit are evidence China is getting respect its leader thinks it deserves

President Xi Jinping of China is welcomed to the White House in a ceremony with President Barack Obama on Friday. Xi used carefully chosen words in a announcement about cyberspace. (Chris Kleponis/Pool/Getty)

A few days before Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle to begin his landmark visit to the United States, the two countries exchanged modest gestures of goodwill, rather like medieval potentates swapping hostages before a tournament.

The United States kicked out businessman Yang Jinjun, one of China's most-wanted fugitives, sending him back to Beijing to face certain imprisonment for bribery.

In return, China finally allowed a New York Times correspondent, Chris Buckley, to return to Beijing after being banned for almost three years as a punishment for the paper's stories about the colossal wealth of China's top officials and their families.

On some of the bigger issues, also, there was more give and take than many predicted before the summit.

China made a surprisingly detailed announcement of measures to address climate change by introducing a new cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions by 2017. News that the world's biggest polluter is taking the problem seriously has been widely welcomed by environmentalists.

Xi and Obama exchange toasts during a state dinner Friday night at the White House. Obama used the occasion to deploy a Chinese proverb. (Ron Sachs/CNP/Getty)

It should be said, though, that cap-and-trade is easier to announce than to implement. The system depends on creating a market for carbon emissions. China's vertiginous stock market ups and downs, which shook the world economy this year, demonstrated again that markets are not the Communist Party's strong point.

In the past China has been slow to join any international effort on the environment, feeling that it has a right to catch up with richer countries, which got where they are by polluting in the past.

But the party now sees public anger over the dark clouds of smog which blanket Chinese cities as a threat to stability. The new measures were announced with one eye on China's stature in the world, and the other on public opinion. This will play well at home, where a personality cult of infallible benevolence is being built around "Xi Dada" — Uncle Xi.     

Loophole on hacking

The area of apparent progress at the summit itself is computer hacking.

Preventing the wholesale plunder of American computers has been a key issue for Washington since the discovery early this year that hackers, believed to be from China, have made off with the security records and fingerprints of as many as 22 million U.S. government employees, contractors, job applicants and their friends and family.

Just before the visit, President Barack Obama said he understood spying, and admitted the United States does its share, but warned China it had gone too far.

"Traditional intelligence-gathering… is fundamentally different from your government or its proxies engaging directly in industrial espionage and stealing trade secrets, stealing proprietary information from companies," he said.

"That we consider an act of aggression that has to stop."

After their talks, the two leaders said they had reached a "common understanding" and would work toward international rules of the road for cyberspace.

A hint that the U.S. would be wiser to strengthen its defences than to trust China to mend its ways lies in the carefully chosen words each leader used.

Obama spoke of agreement on "cyberespionage," while Xi used the much narrower "cybercrime," leaving, it seems, a loophole — or, as hackers would have it, a back door.

Duelling proverbs

The language used at summits is important, and every syllable is carefully scrutinized, nowhere more than in the summit ritual of duelling Chinese proverbs.

Obama's entry this time was a saying he used to draw attention to China's dismal record on human rights.

"Just as you say in China that a sea accepts a hundred rivers, our countries together are stronger when we accept the diversity of the views and the contributions and uphold the rights of all our people," he said.

Xi's enormous home-court advantage showed in his selection: "Peaches and plums don't talk, yet a path is formed beneath them."

American commentators took this to mean that the two countries could find common ground despite their differences, but the subtext is rather that China's achievements speak for themselves, and criticism is misplaced.

In that spirit, Xi brushed aside complaints about China's escalation of territorial disputes with its neighbours. He defended the massive construction projects that are turning remote reefs into islands with ports and air strips, and denied any military intentions.

Xi vs. the Pope

For Xi, the visit to the United States has been a successful part of the core concept that he calls "the Chinese dream."

The trappings of a state visit, with a 21-gun salute and an elaborate banquet; the kowtowing of billionaires thirsting for business concessions;  talks in which China is asked for much and gives little; and his speech to the biggest gathering ever of world leaders at the United Nations are all evidence that a renascent China is getting the respect he thinks it deserves and consolidating a pre-eminent place in world affairs.

Xi shared the limelight in the United States this week with Pope Francis. Their programs were carefully arranged so that they did not cross paths, but had they met, what a summit those two men could have had.

They took over leadership of their respective enormous, unwieldy institutions within three days of each other in March 2013.

Both made unexpected commitments on climate change this week, but otherwise their approach could not be more different.

Il Papa seems to be leading his church forward in unexpected, liberal directions, while Xi Dada is leading his country backward into deeper repression even as it gains in economic and military strength.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts

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