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Who’s Xi? Probably not Hu

Who’s Xi?  Probably not Hu

Next week Xi Jinping, China’s Vice President and the heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao, will make his much anticipated debut in Washington. The playbook for Xi’s visit will be the May 2002 visit that Hu himself made when he was preparing to move up from Vice President to the top leadership positions. On that trip Hu did everything he could to demonstrate his credentials as the future steward of Sino-U.S. relations without making any compromises, missteps or news. The White House understood the drill: this was about investing in the long-term relationship with the next leader of China and not shopping for "deliverables." The White House Spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was careful to tell the press that the President raised tough issues from Tibet to trade, while lowering expectations of major breakthroughs. It generally paid off in the longer-run, as Bush and Hu developed a level of trust that helped them navigate subsequent crises in North Korea, Taiwan and later the international financial system.

Presumably both Beijing and the White House would like to repeat that success. It will not be as easy ten years later, though. In 2002 the United States was focused on the threat from terrorism and not the threat from China; the business community was united behind the President’s efforts to advance U.S.-China relations; there was some modest progress on human rights issues; and Hu himself was absolutely committed to Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to bide time, gather strength and not challenge the United States.

This time around the environment is clearly more difficult. Chinese cyberattacks, aggressive territorial claims, anti-satellite missile tests, and non-transparent military modernization are all impossible to ignore, for the United States and for China’s neighbors. The human rights situation has deteriorated, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang and for political dissidents. The American business community is much more divided about China policy and more willing to criticize trade theft and non-tariff barriers (in particularly unfortunate timing for Xi, this week Dupont sued another Chinese scientist for industrial espionage, the second time in three years). The one issue that is quieter than 2002 is Taiwan, for which both governments are probably thankful.

And while Xi is unlikely to change the fundamental direction he is inheriting from Hu (and Hu from Jiang and Jiang from Deng), the new leader has a different style and faces considerably more domestic pressure to look forceful than his predecessor did a decade ago. Hu, for example, took extreme care to avoid any ideological collisions with the United States and the West, co-opting terms like "democracy" and "responsible stakeholder" rather than respond directly to the premise that China’s value system needed to change. Xi, in contrast, gained kudos from nationalists at home for his 2009 statement on the "Three Did Nots" in Mexico City, in which he explicitly fired back at the critics of China. It is also hard to find evidence Xi is a more progressive thinker on human rights and political space. The Dalai Lama had a good relationship with Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun decades ago, but Tibetan hopes for improvements under the son were dashed when the younger Xi denounced supporters of the Dalai Lama during a heavily policed visit to Lhasa last summer. Similarly, China watchers in Singapore and Southeast Asia have hoped that Xi would be more accommodating and reasonable on maritime disputes given his background as party boss in the coastal province of Fujien, yet as current Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission he has presided over Beijing’s expanding military operations in contested waters around Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.

On the other hand, Xi is a more confident and charismatic presence than Hu, knows more about the United States (next week he will revisit the Iowa town where he led an agricultural delegation in the early 1980s), and will likely announce major commercial agreements while he is here. So the jury is still out. As the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, recently confessed, "it is going to take a while to really understand how he might move forward." Meanwhile, Xi’s visit to the United States could prove a success despite the tougher environment because for both Washington and Beijing, failure is not an option.