Editor’s Note: In an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill, Cheng Li discussed the state of U.S.-China relations in light of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Cheng Li, tell us, what do we need to know about this man who is likely to be China’s next leader?
CHENG LI: Well, he is a man of contradictions. This can be found in his background, in his policy and in his attitude towards United States.
In terms of his background, he comes from a very prominent leadership family. We call him princeling, we can, rather, nobility. This is very privileged in life, and — but also at the same time he was central to cultural revolution, because his father was purged.
So, at the age of 15, he was sent to a remote area, very poor, primitive area to work as a farmer for six years. So that experience taught him a lot of things: humility, adaptability and et cetera. He thought this was his defining formative experience.
Now, in terms of policies, he is very market friendly. And he served as a provincial leader in Fujian and Shanghai. These areas are very famous for private sector, dynamic private sector, where he was a leader. He really promoted private sector.
But at the same time that he never said anything about political reform. So politically he is a conservative. And finally his attitude towards the United States, he actually gave on a number of occasions very harsh words criticizing the United States, very nationalistic. But at the same time, he said he loved American movies, World War II movies.
He had sent his daughter to the United States, but also most importantly that he made personal decisions when he’s the provincial chief in Zhejiang to bury the ashes of the U.S. last ambassador, John Stuart, who was a missionary, educator, who served as the president of Yenching University and also the U.S. last ambassador for China in 1949.
Because he was born in China, he wanted to — his wishes — in his wishes, he wanted to — yes, bury. Xi Jinping did that, because this is very difficult, Chairman Mao wrote a piece filled with Stuart, sounds like he’s a symbolic figure of the American imperialism.
The Chinese leadership has promised for years that reform was around the bend and then you see things like President Xi’s speech where he emphasized the central role of the party... Members of the business community see the Trump administration as an opportunity for the U.S. to rattle the cage in Beijing.