He probably wouldn’t call it a smirk. But it’s a smirk. And it’s his trademark.
“We are ready to work with all countries to advance global modernization featuring peaceful development, mutually beneficial cooperation and common prosperity,” Xi Jinping said, in a boilerplate address to business leaders in San Francisco.
China, Xi declared, wants to help “build a community with a shared future for mankind.” As he paused to glance down at prepared remarks on the lectern, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao pursed his lips into a barely perceptible smile: The signature smirk of an increasingly imperious authoritarian who openly models himself on one of the 20th century’s most infamous dictators.
Xi was characteristically smug in his every word and mannerism in San Francisco, where titans of American business were reduced to concertgoers jostling for the best seats at a dinner held in Xi’s honor. Scenes from the circus were tailor-made for Chinese state media. Between the elaborate, star-studded dinner and the bilateral meeting with Joe Biden (held at Filoli, a 54,000-square-foot, 60-room mansion on 650 acres), the US served Beijing a propaganda coup on a silver platter — literally.
Xi’s propaganda machine, among the most zealous on Earth, could scarcely decide what to cover first among the cornucopia. “It highlighted Biden’s appearing impressed after inspecting Xi’s Chinese-made Hongqi luxury car, and then waiting patiently in the driveway as the Chinese leader was chauffeured away,” the The New York Times wrote, detailing one of countless exploitations.
The nuance of Xi’s message was seemingly lost on business executives. He repeatedly alluded to a bipolar reality while waxing semi-poetic about multilateralism. He said, for example, that “the world is big enough to accommodate both countries.” That’s cold war rhetoric dressed up as an olive branch, and his contention that China “does not seek spheres of influence and will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone” is undermined by the PLA’s activities in the South China Sea and Beijing’s unflinching support for Moscow in Vladimir Putin’s quixotic proxy war with NATO, among other examples of military projection and side-picking.
On the surface, Xi’s message was simple enough: China wants generally cordial relations with the US in the interest of facilitating better outcomes for the entire world. “If one side sees the other side as a competitor… it will only lead to misguided actions and unwanted results,” he said.
The subtler message was captured succinctly by the Times in the same linked article mentioned above. “Xi wants to convince Washington, and the world, that he is willing to engage with the US, in part to lure back foreign investment [but] he also wants to demonstrate to the Chinese people that he… burnished [China’s] image as a world power on par with the United States, not a secondary one making concessions.” As one professor of international affairs put it, summing up Xi’s message in remarks to the Times, “You either listen to me or it’s going to be a disaster. We can divide the Earth, so to speak.”
It’s hard to know whether the likes of Elon Musk are as naive as they often appear when it comes to Xi, but judging by Musk’s extraordinarily ill-advised decision to speak personally with Putin, he seems to be genuinely oblivious. Musk dignified Xinhua as he arrived at a reception for Xi. “We met once briefly,” Musk told a reporter, when asked what he’d like to say to “the president.” “I look forward to meeting him again.” Musk did appear nervous. In this case, that’d be a good thing. Apparently, he didn’t stick around for dinner.
As discussed at some length in “Emperor Non Grata,” the US and its business leaders should be extraordinarily wary. This is a delicate juncture for humanity and Xi’s unequivocally not the benevolent peacekeeper he claims to be. Everyone knows what Xi is, including Biden who, when pressed by a reporter on whether he still considers Xi a dictator, said “Well, he is.”
Xi endeavored to dispense with that characterization. While speaking at the dinner with business leaders (“friendly organizations,” as Xinhua called them) he described China’s socioeconomic system and governance structure as “a choice by our peoples” akin to Americans choosing democracy. “We are proud of our choice, just as you are proud of yours,” he said.
During the same remarks, Xi said he’d “be glad to see a confident, open, ever-growing and prosperous US.” He went on: “Likewise, the United States should not bet against China, or interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
On a lighter note, Xi indicated that China might send “envoys of friendship” back to the US. “I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off,” Xi said. As NBC dryly noted, “Xi did not say how many pandas might be sent to the US or when.”
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