US officials encountered a remarkable – even unprecedented – level of concern from their Beijing counterparts over how Chinese President Xi Jinping would be treated during his brief visit to the United States this week, people familiar with the matter said.
Over months of intricate planning, Chinese officials demonstrated an enormous amount of focus on ensuring every piece of choreography surrounding Xi’s summit with President Joe Biden on Wednesday – down to where Xi would sit and what he might see out of the window at any given moment – would guarantee the Chinese leader was treated with respect, sources familiar with the planning told CNN.
That included the timing and location of the summit, which is occurring amid a larger gathering of Pacific leaders in San Francisco. Instead of meeting in one of the many rooms set aside for bilateral meetings at the cavernous Moscone convention hall, the two men will meet at a historic estate south of San Francisco.
Even after confirming that Biden and Xi would meet, administration officials would only describe the location of the summit as the “Bay area,” citing security concerns. The venue for Wednesday’s summit was kept a secret from even members of the White House press corps traveling with Biden to San Francisco until hours before the meeting.
White House officials scouted a number of venues, sources said, taking into account security considerations and how much the space could accommodate. But there were more superficial factors at play, too – like the look and feel of the venue, one source said.
“All the logistical arrangements are pretty intense, as you would imagine,” one senior US administration official said.
Even the flowers, food and drink have been subject to intense discussions between the two sides, which each hope the meeting will result in reduced strain between the US and China.
“China – normally, if they come to United States, they want everything. They want all the pomp and circumstance. They want the highest possible respect that can be paid to them when they come for these sorts of meetings,” said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Given the overall state of the relationship … that is politically not possible,” he said. “And so having APEC in San Francisco solves that problem, in the sense that it’s not the official White House that’s hosting the meeting.”
Meeting will be closely watched in China
American diplomats, no stranger to the complicated planning that historically goes into any foreign travel for the Chinese president, said the attention paid to the atmospherics underscored the importance Xi was placing on how his summit with Biden would be perceived back home.
Highly attuned to etiquette and symbolism, Chinese officials have sought to ensure each element of Xi’s visit to California conveys the highest levels of respect – down to efforts to prevent (or at least obscure) protests of the communist leader.
San Francisco and the Bay Area are home to one of the largest populations of Chinese or Chinese-Americans in the United States. One-fifth of the population of San Francisco has Chinese roots, according to US census data.
That heightens the sensitivities surrounding Xi’s visit. Pro-democracy and human rights groups said they planned to launch protests around the APEC summit venue this week, though demonstrations at the Biden-Xi meeting itself appeared unlikely.
Chinese officials have sought to prevent Xi from viewing such protests firsthand, according to officials, and pro-Chinese demonstrators have also been out in force, eager to show support for the Chinese leader. As Biden was traveling from the airport to his hotel Tuesday, signs reading “Warm Welcome for Xi” were seen on the roadside. Others were waving US and Chinese flags.
Few surprises expected
Officials also spent hours with their counterparts discussing the substance of the talks, hoping to prevent surprises.
Xi has not been to the United States in more than six years, and US officials said this week will mark his first return to San Francisco since he was a young Communist Party secretary in the Chinese provinces. Foreign travel has been particularly rare for Xi over the past few years during amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
His visits with past US leaders, including Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have also featured highly scripted choreography. He met Obama at the Sunnylands compound outside Palm Springs, each shedding jackets and ties for a walk in the desert heat. With Trump, he enjoyed dinner at Mar-a-Lago followed by what Trump later described as “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake.”
Xi has tightened his grip on power over the last two years, promoting party loyalists and extending his tenure indefinitely. Yet he also arrives in California at a fragile economic moment, as China experiences a real estate crisis and youth unemployment soars.
Xi’s handling of the Covid crisis – including stonewalling of international investigations into the virus’s origins – has caused frustration both at home and abroad. Recent shakeups within his inner circle, including the abrupt ouster of Xi’s handpicked defense and foreign ministers, have also raised questions about his judgement.
Increased scrutiny on Xi’s trip stateside
That has applied extra scrutiny to this week’s trip to the United States. Aside from his summit with Biden, Xi will headline a dinner with top American executives, eager to court US businesses amid sliding foreign investment in China – and to signal to the US government the importance the private sector still places on China.
“For Beijing, optics are ever important,” said Ryan Hass, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. “Chinese officials will want to project to their domestic audience that Xi is received by Biden with dignity and respect. They will be interested in highlighting both leaders engaging amicably with each other and investing personally in guiding the relationship.”
“Accomplishing this will require imagery of both leaders interacting on a personal basis beyond the customary handshake in front of a bank of flags in a hotel conference room,” Hass went on.
Biden and Xi have known each other for longer than a decade, and Biden often recites the number of miles they traveled together when both were vice president. Biden was dispatched by the Obama administration to get the temperature of Xi when it appeared likely he would be elevated to leader.
That apparently warm relationship hasn’t translated into improved ties between the US and China, however, and Biden said before leaving for California he hoped to get the relationship back on track after months of tension.
Asked at the White House how he defined success for Wednesday’s sit-down, Biden said, “to get back on a normal course.”
He said that included “corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure that our militaries still have contact with one another.”
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