Xi Jinping’s Visit to the United States: All Eyes on China’s New Leader

The impending visit of China’s Vice President Xi Jinping to the United States has prompted understandable speculation about Beijing’s incoming top leader. Only a handful of senior US officials have met with Xi to this point, and his meetings with President Obama, members of the Cabinet, the Congressional leadership and various forays on the public stage will no doubt furnish information and insight into Xi’s personality, possibly yielding clues about what to expect from Xi when he assumes the top position in the Chinese Communist Party late this year.

Xi takes power at a very unsettled moment within China, and his lead Party rank does not imply outright political dominance. The maneuvering over senior leadership posts, to be announced at the 18th Party congress late this year, has clearly intensified, and will require balancing disparate interests atop the system. Only days prior to Xi’s departure for the United States, Wang Lijun, a recently demoted aide of one of China’s most openly ambitious politicians, Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, was detained by internal security personnel following Wang’s highly unusual visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. If Chinese officials wished to impart the impression of a seamless leadership transition, recent events convey nothing of the sort.

Discontent at a popular level is even more apparent. There is acute restiveness within China, with citizens increasingly pushing back against bureaucratic and corporate actions that exploit and disenfranchise local populations. Widespread protests against a host of festering issues, including corruption, pervasive income inequality, and a lack of official accountability, continue to mount. Disaffection among educated elites is also increasingly evident, with intellectuals voicing growing unhappiness over the failings of senior policymakers to demonstrate courage and creativity in the face of growing challenges at home and abroad.

Anxieties within the senior leadership clearly extend to U.S.-China relations. Though American officials will no doubt convey their desire for cooperation with China’s incoming leader, the Obama administration has undertaken a much more forceful defense of U.S. interests across the Asia-Pacific region, openly cultivating closer ties with many of China’s neighbors. At the same time, the administration expects tangible evidence of Chinese responsiveness across a wide range of economic, political, and security issues. Vice President Xi will no doubt reiterate his recent calls for stability in bilateral ties, premised on the expectation that both countries have much to lose if relations fester or deteriorate. But stability that papers over major policy differences (most notably, on economic issues) will buy little, and may make matters worse.

All eyes will be focused on China’s leader during his U.S. visit. But even as Xi will want to put his best foot forward, he cannot overstep his authority. A Chinese domestic audience will be equally or even more attentive to Xi’s performance as his American interlocutors. For the present he remains the leader in waiting and his power is far from fully consolidated. He will soon inherit a daunting policy agenda, at a time of greatly rising expectations within China and parallel American expectations that China begin to assume an international role commensurate with its increasing economic, political, and military weight. Will he impart to U.S. officials his determination to address the “trust deficit” that continues to inhibit the full development of bilateral relations? This question is not only for Vice President Xi to address. But his demeanor and behavior during his visit will undoubtedly shape impressions among U.S. officials and a larger public audience about the road ahead in Sino-American relations.