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What Xi Jinping’s Seattle Speech Might Mean For the U.S.

What Xi Jinping’s Seattle Speech Might Mean For the U.S.

On his first stop since arriving in the United States for a state visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed an audience of more than 700 American businesspeople in Seattle on the evening of Sept. 22. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts who watched the speech discuss Xi’s unexpected take on his token slogan the “Chinese Dream,” his familiarity with U.S. popular concern about China, and whether or not his seemingly conciliatory remarks will translate into real progress on key U.S.-China issues.

Taisu Zhang, associate professor at the Duke University School of Law:

There were a number of substantial themes in Xi’s speech — the usual promises to stay the course on market reforms, the insistence on China’s status as a developing country, the plea for mutual “deep” cultural understanding (something that I sympathize with), the pledge to seek peaceful growth and not hegemony, the promise to welcome non-governmental and nonprofit organizations in China, and the emphasis on economic integration with Central Asia and the Asia Pacific.

The thing that caught my immediate attention, however, was how Xi defined the Chinese Dream at the beginning of the speech. Since the term was first issued a few years ago, its definition has always been somewhat ambiguous, indeed purposefully so — and, when defined more concretely, has usually incorporated a wide array of issues, ranging from national pride to economic growth to traditional culture to geopolitical security and prominence. For example, in his recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Xi vaguely described the Chinese Dream as a reaction against historical humiliation and suffering, and a general desire for national “rejuvenation.”

On Sept. 22, however, he gave a startlingly clear and concise description of the dream that focused almost entirely on the economy. He framed it in terms of China’s success in pulling much of its population out of poverty, in terms of its rapid growth over the past two decades, and its continued commitment to economic reform. He went so far as to acknowledge that the “fundamental task” of any Chinese state — its primary claim to legitimacy — is to manage and develop the economy.

It is dangerous, of course, to read too much into one speech, but these claims do seem to diverge somewhat from the Chinese Communist Party’s tendency in recent years to aggressively seek non-economic sources of legitimacy. Many commentators believed that, with the ongoing slowdown and restructuring, the party leadership would want to (continue to) seek new means of garnering public support, including cracking down on corruption, trumpeting the “rule of law,” adopting a more aggressive diplomatic posture, embracing “traditional culture,” and rejuvenating “Chinese socialism” as a viable sociopolitical ideology.

But Xi’s Seattle speech seemed to echo the ideological stance of the Jiang and Hu eras in emphasizing economic development above all else. Does this mean that the party leadership is feeling more optimistic about its economic prospects than outside observers seem to recognize, or is it simply acknowledging the unavoidable truth that its political fate and legacy will ultimately be determined by its economic performance?

Finally, as a Greek history buff, I admit to feeling a fleeting sense of amusement and joy over Xi’s mention of Thucydides.

Graham Webster, Senior Fellow at The China Center at Yale Law School:

The last five or so minutes of Xi’s speech featured an announcement of more student exchange, reminiscences about admiring U.S. political figures, and reading everything from The Federalist Papers to The Old Man and the Sea. It was really quite charming. On the substance, though, the speech will be disappointing to many observers looking for Xi to indicate flexibility rather than stubbornness at a time when China’s domestic confidence might be lower.

On the issue of cybersecurity, low hopes will be lower after this speech. When Xi says he is ready to set up a high-level mechanism with the United States on “fighting cyber crimes,” U.S. listeners will note what happened to the last Cyber Working Group, suspended by the Chinese side after U.S. indictments of alleged People’s Liberation Army hackers. When he says “the Chinese government will not in any form engage in commercial theft” or encourage others to do so, and that such crimes “must be punished in accordance with law or relevant international treaties,” those hoping for a meeting of minds on computer-assisted commercial theft will see the renewed denials here and in Xi’s written Wall Street Journal interview as reason to expect minimal or no progress on that issue.

There is still a chance, if a slim one, for progress on commercial theft: The governments could set up a mechanism to trade information about computer attacks emanating from each other’s countries, backed by a commitment to investigate and charge hackers. That’s the kind of announcement more suited to a joint press conference or statement, rather than a solo speech when Pope Francis is dominating the U.S. news.

Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York:

What impressed‎ me about Xi’s speech in Seattle was that it showed that he had done his homework about those issues that have been making so much disturbance in the field of American attitudes towards China. He addressed a quite comprehensive list of American concerns from economic reform and rule of law to civil society and harassment of foreign correspondents working in China. By doing so, he seemed to be underscoring his commitment to keep U.S.-China relations in good repair. (He did not, however, evince any willingness to deal with the very contentious issues involving territorial or maritime issues.)

But, while his speech was seemingly direct, reasonable and conciliatory, it does not square very well with Chinese actions over the past year. So whether this represents something of a new start, or was just rhetorical gloss, will only become clear over the next few months as we see whether or not his words become practice.

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