Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is embarking on a five-day tour of the United States beginning with a visit to the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday. Xi's visit comes at a sensitive time in relations between the two countries, as the US enters a presidential election year, and China prepares for its own leadership change.
Xi is just vice-president of China, so what makes this visit so important?
Xi Jinping may as yet just be the vice-president of China, which is still an immensely powerful and influential post. But the expectation is that at the Chinese Communist Party Congress this coming autumn, he will be appointed General Secretary of the party, the most powerful position in the country. In early 2013, he is expected to become president as well.
Assuming there are no social upheavals to remove him from office, Xi is most likely to follow prececessor Hu Jintao and occupy these positions for the next ten years. In other words, Xi is about to become the face of China, and this is the first really good chance we will have to get a look at him.
The visit of the heir-apparent to the US has become part of the rites of passage of would-be Chinese leaders. Hu Jintao visited Washington in 2002, just before he took over power. It’s a sort of test to see how he looks and how he copes with the international exposure and pressure. As such, the visit is being as closely watched in China itself as it is in the United States.
So we’re going to be hearing a lot more of Xi in the future, but what sort of man is he?
Well, he certainly looks different from Hu Jintao, who has disappointed many both inside and outside China with his cautious approach and reluctance to tinker with the entrenched power of the Communist Party. Xi Jinping has comes from an elite revolutionary family, but he has also known hard times. His father was a revolutionary hero who fell foul of Mao Zedong. At the age of 15, Xi had to abandon the comforts of a privileged urban lifestyle for a troglodyte existence in a remote and poverty-stricken village. For seven years he lived in a cave and worked extracting methane from pig manure.
The experience is said to have had a profound affect on him, adding populist sensibility and pragmatism to his elite party pedigree. The hope in the US is that it will be easier to do business with the earthy, sensible Xi than the rather more dogmatic and cautious Hu Jintao.
OK, but he didn’t get to be where he is today without sharing many if not most of the values of the ruling establishment. What can Washington expect from Xi?
Well, he has pretty much laid out his stall in comments published in the Washington Post. This is a man who appears comfortable with China’s emergence as a superpower, ready to defend his country’s interests but perhaps without some of the prickly aggression of his predecessors. Washington can expect China under Xi to strongly defend its interests in the Pacific: he is critical, for instance, of the US’s plans to beef up its military presence in the region, and also critical of US weapons sales to Taiwan, although he also says there is ample room for both states in the Pacific. As Xi said in the Washington Post, if the last 40 years have shown one thing, it is that a sound and stable China-US relationship is crucial for both countries.
But there are some serious differences to be overcome, aren’t there?
Many. Apart from Taiwan and rival military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, Washington will continue to press Beijing on its yawning trade deficit with China and its charge that China is keeping the exchange rate of the yuan against the dollar artificially low. Human rights, in Tibet for instance, and freedom of speech will also be recurring issues. Assuming Xi does come to power, he will do so at a particularly critical time for China. Pressure for political and economic reform is mounting, and how he deals with it could determine not just the nature of Beijing’s relations with the outside world, but the future of China itself.