Xi Jinping will not have taken it personally. He knows that it’s an election year, and that an American president and his administration cannot be seen to be soft — especially towards a country that many Americans worry will take their jobs and perhaps one day their cherished status as the world’s most powerful country.
Still, it must not have been easy for Xi to stand and simply smile as US Vice President Joe Biden took a series of swipes at him, both implied and direct. “Cooperation … can only be mutually beneficial if the game is fair,” Biden said as the two stood next to each other at a press conference during Xi’s visit to Washington in January. “We spent a great deal of time discussing the areas of our greatest concern, including the need to rebalance the global economy, to protect intellectual property rights and trade secrets, to address China’s undervalued exchange rate, to level the competitive playing field and to prevent the forced transfer of technology.”
As political analyst Charlie Cook says, the US election will almost certainly be won or lost based on Barack Obama’s approval rating. It is, he said, the single best predictor of whether an incumbent president will be re-elected, and we can expect that the result in November’s election will be two-thirds about the economy—and especially about unemployment.
So it will have been a relief for the Obama administration that the US unemployment rate has dipped from 9.1 per cent last August to 8.2 per cent in March. The problem is that many analysts are sceptical that the economy can keep picking up at its current pace. And with fuel prices rising (another useful indicator of a president’s popularity), expect US politicians to continue the China bashing.
The Occupy Wall Street movement (if movement isn’t too grand a term), tapped into a sense that not everyone is playing fair — that Wall Street bankers who helped create the financial crisis in the first place have gotten off lightly while the average American is struggling to make ends meet. It’s not surprising, then, that Obama and his likely Republican opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, see some political mileage in the idea that China isn’t playing fair.
China is still something of an enigma for most Americans. Indeed, a survey by the Pew Research Center last January found that 47 per cent of Americans believed that China had already overtaken the US as the world’s leading economy. And that same survey suggested that Obama and Romney won’t go wrong, domestically at least, by training their fire on China’s “unfair” trade practices — 85 per cent of Americans believe the US government should be tougher with Beijing on trade.
Taking this cue, Romney has adopted an even more combative approach to China than Biden or Obama, promising to make citing China as a currency manipulator a priority on his first day in office if he is elected president.
And, as the United States makes its pivot to the Asia-Pacific — a move few are in any doubt is aimed at signalling the end of the relatively free rein China had in the region during the past decade as America was distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan — Romney has indicated his determination to make sure the US military is equipped for the challenge.
With the United States tightening its purse strings, including its military budget, Romney has vowed to boost ship production to allow the US Navy to have a fleet of 313 vessels, rather than seeing a reduction to less than 250, as some projections suggest will happen by the end of a second Obama administration. This pumped-up fleet isn’t being eyed for use against Iran or North Korea — it’s all about China.
So it’s against this backdrop that Biden felt he needed to talk tough to China’s leader-in-waiting. Despite the events of February and March, and the dramatic fall of rising political star and Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai, Xi still seems destined to take over from Hu Jintao when China announces its next generation leadership in the autumn. But with almost half of Americans believing China has already overtaken the United States as the world’s biggest economy, there’s clearly a gap between perception and reality — a gap that American politicians are all too willing to fill.
Was Xi able to change these perceptions? As much as the media were keen to look for clues on what a Xi presidency might look like, the fact is that most Americans weren’t paying attention to the visit. The majority would not have known his name, and I’d venture to say a majority of people don’t even know the name of the current president.
But however limited American public interest might be in China’s next leader, there were plenty of commentators keen to read the tea leaves anyway. Xi has visited the US regularly and has a daughter at Harvard, so he may be well placed to present a friendlier face to Americans, some said. Xi’s personal hardships, including seven years spent in a village in central China doing manual labour during the Cultural Revolution, will make him more accessible to the needs of the rural masses in China, others postulated.
But a leader’s background generally proves a poor indicator of the policies they will pursue once in office (just look across the border at the Kim dynasty and those already misplaced hopes that Kim Jong-un would be different from his father simply because he studied in Switzerland and likes basketball). And in China, Xi, whatever his personal beliefs, will be part of what is essentially a collective leadership. He will be, as Brookings scholar Cheng Li has described him, simply “a first among equals.”
And while ties with the United States are undoubtedly important to any Chinese leader, Xi and the next generation of the Communist Party have enormous problems to contend with at home. The Wukan protest late last year underscored how rocky the road ahead will be for China’s Communist Party. Even with rapid economic growth, the number of so-called mass incidents has been soaring each year.
The US administration may lament the lack of fairness in China’s economic policy. But with the Party’s very survival at stake if it can’t underpin social stability, don’t expect Xi or any other Chinese leader to do much more than listen politely when US leaders start lecturing.