Talking Point

Pontiff pips president

Xi Jinping plays second fiddle to Pope Francis on American tour

Xi and the tech CEOs

China’s president grabs his moment in the spotlight with tech executives in California last week

Both hold sway over more than a billion people. And both got the top job after closed-door elections that remain well nigh impossible for outsiders to figure out. They are, of course, Xi Jinping and Pope Francis.

Some of the similarities in the organisations that the two men lead have been mentioned before.

As Richard McGregor notes in his book The Party, the Vatican “is the only organisation of comparable dimensions to the Chinese Communist Party” with “a similar addiction to ritual and secrecy.”

McGregor even quotes one Chinese source as telling a senior Catholic: “We have the propaganda department and you have the evangelicals. We have the organisation department and you have the College of Cardinals. What’s the difference, then?”

Adding to the sense of mystery surrounding the two organisations was a new one last week.

How had both these powerful men scheduled official visits to America in the same week? Did the Chinese know that their President would be going head-to-head with the Supreme Pontiff for media airtime? And if so, why did Beijing’s diplomats agree to the arrangement?

The Pope’s trip to the US was rare – it was only the tenth Papal visit. Even rarer was a speech in Congress, as well as another on the White House lawn (delivered in English, and ending with the crowd-pleasing line “God Bless America”).

Inevitably this raises the question: was Xi Jinping’s own visit – made in the very same week – overshadowed?

He came, he saw…

Before arriving in the US, Xi did something rare too. He had an interview with a Western media outlet, giving written responses to questions from the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps the most notable phrase he used was that “all roads lead to Rome”. Wittingly or not, the metaphor foreshadowed a week in which the Fiat-driving Francis would grab most of the attention.

Chinese media did its best to sound unconcerned. As Wujie News commented: “Considering the Pope’s influence in the Western world, especially his identity as a spiritual leader beyond politics, any state leader visiting the United States at the same time would be robbed of the limelight.”

The American media noticed it too. The New York Times ran a cartoon showing Obama holding out his hand to Xi, only to turn and focus his attention on Pope Francis instead. Jon Stewart’s replacement at the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, told the same newspaper that a comic segment of his programme had been designed to reflect this reality. “We’re commenting on the fact that everyone is only covering the Pope. Everyone’s going mad over the Pope. What I found interesting is the fact that the Chinese president is there, and no one’s talking about it.”

MediaMiser, a monitoring company, calculated that between September 20 and 27, the Pope was mentioned more than 21 times more frequently on US television than Xi, and nearly five times as often in American print media.

Xi even faced competition from his own wife for media coverage. One of the more memorable parts of their visit was a speech Peng Liyuan gave at the United Nations in pretty fluent English (for more see page 16).

The China Daily dutifully recorded that this was the “first time in the People’s Republic of China’s diplomatic history this had been done”.

Of course, the same newspaper was in no mood to belittle the impact of Xi’s visit. Its editorial page described the trip as “nothing but a success” although it did concede that “Chinese media have sounded more upbeat about the visit” than their American counterparts.

Xinhua, meanwhile, cited Xi’s personal verdict that the trip had been “fruitful” and it listed 49 “achievements” that had been made during the week.

Some of these were substantive, others might strike WiC readers as a little desperate, such as the news that 2016 had been “designated as China-US Tourism Year”.

Not so sleepy in Seattle

It was widely pointed out that Xi spent more of his time on American soil in Seattle than he did in the nation’s capital, Washington. Arguably this part of his trip had the highest impact, especially in regard to its photo opportunities.

Xi convened a conference about the internet that was attended by 28 tech titans from China and the US. The invitee list read like a veritable who’s who of the digital elite: on the Chinese side, the likes of Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma turned up; and from the US were heavyweights such as Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (who even wore a suit and tie).

All told, those present represented companies with a combined market value estimated at $2.5 trillion.

A photo of Xi with the tech leaders went viral online and did a little to reinforce the Chinese leader’s enormous sway. A common view among Chinese netizens: only Xi could have got this many of the world’s tech bosses to gather in the same room.

At another business-focused event in Seattle, Xi sought to ram home his key messages that economic reforms would be ongoing and that China would continue to be an engine of global growth.

As Wujie News reported: “Whereas the outside world is worried about the economic slowdown in China, Xi Jinping has rendered hope to the US business community: he said that in the next five years, China is expected to import $10 trillion of goods, make more than $500 billion in overseas investment and provide more than 500 million outbound tourists.”

Xi also showed off a little of his classical history in denying that America and China were heading for the “Thucydides trap”, a reference to the thesis based on ancient Athens and Sparta that a newly rising power is bound to challenge the existing power, making war inevitable.

For CCTV the key thing about the trip was the tone set by their man. Reflecting on his Seattle speech the state broadcaster said : “Xi did a fine job in addressing US concerns while advocating his views on fostering peaceful and symbiotic relations and affirmed that China’s economy is in fine fettle. Xi’s references to American culture, such as the popular television series House of Cards, also endeared the president to the American public.”

And the key announcements?

As WiC reported in last week’s issue there was the obligatory Boeing aircraft purchase (a stock feature of Sino-US summitry), as well as the news that the Seattle firm would set up a production facility in China.

Additionally, there were two major policy areas where Xi sought to either calm US concerns or take the initiative. The first related to cyber espionage, an area of growing concern in Washington, particularly in relation to American businesses having their intellectual property compromised by Chinese hackers.

As The Economist pointed out, China has its own concerns about cyberspying. “America is hardly blameless on this front,” the magazine warned, noting that the NSA has spied on Chinese targets including telecoms equipment firm Huawei and that “American tech firms helped it to snoop”.

A truce of sorts seems to have been agreed, with the two leaders announcing a cyber pact that “neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.”

They also agreed to set up a ‘high-level joint dialogue mechanism on fighting cybercrime’.

But few were convinced that the commitments would add up to much, with the Wall Street Journal calling it the “Obama-Xi Cyber Mirage”.

“All of this is an elaborate way of saying the two sides have agreed to nothing,” it commented dismissively.

More substantive was Xi’s new policy promise on climate change. He committed to putting a cap-and-trade mechanism in place by 2017 to lower China’s carbon emissions. He also said China would create a $3 billion fund to help developing countries address climate change.

Given that a cap-and-trade bill died in the US Senate in 2010, the New York Times commented that Xi’s move “puts the ball back in Washington’s court on climate change”. Environmentalists were genuinely positive too, with The Diplomat writing that it “will probably go down as the biggest outcome of this meeting”.

However, the cynics pointed out that building an effective exchange for emission trading is going to be very challenging. Getting powerful companies to take part “will be daunting even for China’s authoritarian leaders,” the New York Times conceded.

What did China get?

Xi didn’t come away from the US with many major goodies, with one exception: the White House announced that it now supports the idea of the IMF including the renminbi as part of its special drawing rights currency scheme. The yuan’s inclusion in the SDR regime is seen by Beijing as key to internationalising the Chinese currency.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment related to the bilateral investment treaty (BIT), or rather the lack of one. Business bosses had hoped some sort of breakthrough would be achieved in Washington, but no progress was made. (The treaty will reduce the number of sectors that are off-limits to investors from the other country.)

There was also no advance on the row in the South China Sea, where China’ s activities have antagonised US allies. It seems that the two sides did little more than restate their respective positions on the various maritime disputes in the region.

Some analysts expect the South China Sea tensions to steadily poisoning the overall relationship between the two countries. In a Fox News op-ed, Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, argued that the Sino-American relationship is “more dysfunctional than ever”.

“All the right things were said,” he conceded of the summit, “but leaving the biggest impression, was the unavoidable fact that US-China relations are locked into their current pattern of competition and distrust.”

Indeed, practically all of the presidential candidates for the 2016 race have recently said something unpleasant about China. And just as Xi was readying to leave the US, Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton entered the fray too, tweeting about that favourite bugbear of Sino-US relations: human rights.

Clinton called it “shameless” that Xi had hosted a meeting on women’s rights at the UN “while persecuting feminists”.

Back in China the Global Times dismissed Clinton’s “ignominious shenanigans” and likened her to the “demagogue Donald Trump”.

That led the Financial Times to comment: “The spat signals the resumption of Sino-US sniping following a week of diplomatic good feeling.” The sniping looks set to get worse as next year’s US election approaches.

That said, the New Yorker went back to the bigger picture: “Amid the anxieties, it is easy to overlook a powerful fact: trade between China and the US has grown from $2 billion in 1979 to $592 billion last year, making the nations more interdependent than ever.”


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