On the Record

Understanding Xi Jinping and China’s New Generation of Leaders

Cheng Li

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, widely expected to be China’s next leader, will be in Washington, D.C., on February 14 for a visit with senior U.S. government officials, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The visit comes at a crucial crossroads for China and the Sino-American relationship, with the United States in the midst of the presidential campaign season and China preparing for a political transition later this year. 


Allen Wagner of NBR spoke with Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to get his perspective on the importance of Vice President Xi’s visit, the challenges that Xi and a new generation of leaders face at home and in the United States, and how the U.S.-China relationship might evolve in coming years.

Vice President Xi Jinping, widely expected to be China’s next leader, is visiting the United States this month for a meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Can you briefly discuss the importance of this visit, which occurs ahead of the Chinese leadership transition later this year?

It’s best to look at this visit from two perspectives, first from the United States’ view, then from China’s. Xi Jinping will soon become the leader of the world’s most populous country and the second-largest economy in the world. Certainly the United States wants to develop a more effective China policy, especially when China has more influence on the global economy than perhaps ever before. In all the major issues for the United States, such as rebalancing of the economy, nuclear nonproliferation regarding Iran and North Korea, climate change, and cyber security, the United States needs China to be cooperative. Based on President Obama’s most recent State of the Union speech, you can see that he expressed his frustration on the economic front—on topics like intellectual property rights, market access, and the so-called Chinese indigenous innovation policies (that is, China’s economic protectionism). The United States wants China to be a responsible stakeholder in the global economic recovery, which is very important for the U.S. economy.

From China’s perspective, the February trip is perhaps even more important than it is for the United States. In a way, Vice President Xi has two perceived audiences, or you could say he is playing two chess games simultaneously—one with the United States and the other with China’s domestic audience. The Chinese audience is even more important from his perspective because people in China will want to see whether or not he can represent China well, earn respect from the United States, and act like a wise statesman or even a global leader. Most importantly, he will try to advance or protect his country’s best interests as people in China watch. If the trip is successful, Xi will gain political capital to consolidate his own power back at home. But he cannot afford for this trip to be a failure. It would hurt Xi politically if he were to say something unnecessarily confrontational or act unlike a statesman. But it will probably be even worse if he is seen as too accommodating to the West and not firmly advancing or protecting China’s interests.

Vice President Biden visited China and Vice President Xi last year. In what ways do these reciprocal visits help the United States better understand Xi’s background and China’s new generation of leaders before they take the mantle from President Hu Jintao later this year? How do such visits help Xi understand his American counterparts?

The United States wants to know more about Xi Jinping’s personality and policy orientations, especially on issues regarding the United States. Twenty, ten, or even five years ago, China’s economy was considered less significant, less consequential than say, those of the EU, Japan, Canada, or even South Korea and Mexico. But today, China is rapidly becoming a global economic powerhouse, and the PRC government’s policies—monetary, trade, taxation, industrial, environmental, and energy policies—will likely have a major impact on both the U.S. and global economies. These are important things for U.S. leaders to consider.

But this visit can also help Xi better understand the United States—its values, concerns, and goodwill to China—while reducing his misperceptions or misunderstandings, if any, of the United States. So this visit is a very important opportunity for the United States to show the best of America to Xi. At the same time, this is also an opportunity to help Xi understand all sorts of challenges confronting the United States.

Finally, the United States wants to cultivate a good relationship with Xi, and as such, he will meet not only with President Obama and Vice President Biden but also with the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the secretary of the treasury. The United States wants to develop mutual respect, if not mutual trust, with Xi and the Chinese leadership. At the very least, the United States should develop a working relationship based on mutual respect. A personal relationship is of value everywhere, but especially so in Chinese political culture. 

Read the full interview at nbr.org »

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