Thursday, June 6, 2013

Xi Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

Yes, that would be the number one hit on Radio Beijing this week as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the United States on Friday to meet with President Obama. Their agenda will not be full of arms control or contentious issues like North Korea, Iran or who owns which teensy islands in the South China Sea, but rather, personal diplomacy. That's right; President Xi (or is it her...I can never remember) is traveling thousands of miles to meet the chilliest, most standoffish, least huggable American leader since Richard Nixon in order to establish a personal connection on the superpower stage.

Further, Mrs. Xi (is that redundant? OK, I'll stop) won't be accompanying the Mr. to the Republican Dude Ranch, which is a shame because I'm sure there are many Americans who would like to meet her. Mrs. Obama also won't be in attendance because it's getting near the end of the school year and the Obama girls surely have some last minute exams to take. So, it will just be the guys at the Sunnylands retreat, where Ronald Reagan and other GOPers used to sun themselves and cavort with wealthy people who loved them.

As with all meetings between key world leaders, both sides will need to measure the success of the summit. It will be difficult to tell if Xi achieves his goal of making friends with Obama, but I give him credit for making the personal, instead of the political, his particular goal. China isn't ready to take the lead on the world stage. Their economy is large and growing, but subject to volatility brought on by too much state meddling and the ever-present threat of shoddy, or even deadly products. Militarily, they could rival the US in sheer numbers, but their eyes are too big for their stomachs when it comes to how much they can push or bully other countries to do their bidding. At this point, they can't even dissuade North Korea to make significant changes to their behavior. How are they going to challenge more savvy, well-connected and wealthier countries to take them seriously? Xi is most likely aware of this and is taking a slow growth approach to the United States.

Xi is also a member of the generation that came of political age at the time of the June 4th democracy movement in Tienanmen Square. The military crackdown on democracy protesters was a critical turning point, and presumably today's Chinese leadership has learned the dangers of allowing too much freedom along with the warning that too much repression brings. Letting people to get rich in return for agreeing to a one-party state is a risky proposition because the truth is this: Not everyone can get rich, but everyone will be subject to the censors, the police and the Internet trackers. Xi must be looking at Turkey, Syria and Egypt and wondering how he can keep the lid on his country. In the end, it's only a matter of time.

Let's hope that  President Obama can establish a connection with our main rivals in the world, and engage Mr. Xi in a productive dialogue that the two men can use when relations get difficult, because they ultimately will. Then both of them can say that they found success.

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