The Chinese President Visited But No One Really Noticed

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after a toast at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

by Adam Hamilton

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s six day state visit last week made big waves as the leader of the world’s second largest economy tried to make a good impression in the world’s first. Yet, in the media, this trip was largely overshadowed by Pope Francis’s own five day visit state-side, and Obama and Putin’s tense meeting at the United Nations. It should not have been that way. President Xi used this trip to show how he wants the relationship between the United States and China to develop. He did this by clarifying the Chinese Government’s role in cybercrime, acting to improve business relations with Silicon Valley, and expanding China’s commitment to embrace its role as a great power.

President Xi’s story is one uniquely Chinese. Xi was born on June 15, 1953 as a “princeling”, a term used to describe officials who are thought to owe their position to family connections. In Xi’s case it was his father, Xi Zhongxun, who was considered one of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding fathers until he was purged. After spending a few years politically blacklisted after his father was expelled from the party, Xi studied chemical engineering at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he began to work for the party at the local level. After finishing school, he began to serve in minor party positions, where he established a reputation as a crusader against corruption. Xi’s prominence rose to the point that in 2007 he was placed on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the effective political decision making body of China. By the next year, Hu Jintao (the previous president and chairman) had Xi elected Vice President, his presumed heir. On November 15, 2012, Xi was elected to General Secretary of the Communist Party, and made leader of the Chinese Communist Party and effective head of government. He was later elected the ceremonial title of President in March of 2013. Xi has used his office to launch far reaching anti-corruption reform as well as to assert Chinese interests more aggressively abroad, such as in this recent trip to the United States.

One of the biggest diplomatic obstacles that the United States and China face is the large scale cybercrime that the U.S. Federal Government accuses both Chinese corporations and the government of committing. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a K Street think tank, said that in 2013, the Chinese Government alone stole $100 billion dollars in intellectual property. This large scale theft has helped accelerate Chinese economic growth at the cost of reducing America’s competitive advantage. On the 25th, President Xi and President Obama announced a cybercrime truce, in which both countries pledged not to engage in economic espionage. China still maintains that it does not engage in commercial espionage. This announcement shows a potential willingness to change, and if followed through, could remove a significant source of tension in Sino-American relations.

Xi’s focus on smoothing over the tensions between the American business community and China also extended to building personal relations with some of the major U.S. players. In Seattle, Xi made sure to meet with corporate leaders at a round table discussion organized by the Paulson Institute, a University of Chicago think tank of 30 leading American and Chinese executives. This discussion focused mostly on Chinese regulations which limit American access to the Chinese market, as well as opportunities for future collaboration. Notably, Chinese censorship law bans Facebook and other American social media, which leaves Silicon Valley left out of a market of 600 million internet users. On the 24th, Xi said that the Internet can exist in China, but only in accordance with “national realities,” or state censorship. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bridges, and Apple CEO Tim Cook were among the tech leaders to meet with Xi and discuss the issues they have when doing business in China. Currently, China’s 600 million internet users are still blocked from using Facebook and Windows 8 while Alibaba has cornered the online retail market.

But Xi’s jam packed cross country tour did not just focus on China’s relation with America. During an address at the United Nations on Monday the 28th, Xi pledged to have China play a bigger peacekeeping role in the UN. Xi pledged a permanent 8,000 man peacekeeping force, as well as $1.1 billion, split between $100 million for the African Union, to develop an immediate response unit for emergencies, and $1 billion for a general peace and development fund. This announcement can be seen as countering the narrative of China shirking its responsibilities as a world power. China does regularly deploy soldiers in peace keeping missions, but at a much smaller rate than countries with smaller defense budgets such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. This announcement may indicate a change from China’s previous policy of supporting peacekeeping missions when they align with more material objectives—like the 700 man team in South Sudan that protects mostly Chinese owned oil fields.

Xi Jinping got to see America last week, and America got to see Xi Jinping. This national tour may not be as popular as the Pope’s, but the impact it will have will probably be more substantial. The changes that Xi Jinping has promised in cyber security alone could be huge, if genuine. The inroads that he has made into America’s corporate community strengthen our trading ties. Possibly most importantly, the expanded role that China wants to play in the world could make it easier to maintain peace. President Xi Jinping certainly has left us with something to think about.

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