It is more than a week since Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) concluded his visits to the US, Ireland and Turkey and returned to Beijing.
Following Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convention, these visits have been characterized as “introductory” trips. The party hopes that this diplomatic exercise will allow the Western world, and in particular the US, to get to know the man that is being touted as China’s “leader-in-waiting.” However, what has it achieved? I believe there are both positive and negative sides to this.
The positives first: Xi was able to do something Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) failed to achieve before he took office. Senior members of the CCP have an issue with image. It has been pointed out that, unlike Hu, Xi at least knows how to smile. This is a very important part of one’s image.
When Hu first became leader, people in English-speaking countries in the West would ask, “Who is Hu?” Now that Hu is about to step down, my feeling is that this question is still waiting for an answer. Hu is seen as a rather dour figure who is very difficult to read. At first, the outside world thought he was just adept at being inscrutable. Now they have started to suspect that there is not really all that much behind the facade.
On his trip, Xi showed a side of himself very different from Hu’s image. He was willing to express his own opinion about things. He apparently showed a deep understanding of the US system when he talked to US Vice President Joseph Biden, and was a little more forthcoming on the issue of human rights, hinting that he knew things were not ideal, when he said: “There is no best, there is only better.” One could say this was a little abstruse and ambiguous, but at least it was a new approach.
In Ireland, he was conspicuously more relaxed, even demonstrating his soccer skills. This did his personal image no end of good in the West.
In view of his possible future role as leader of a world power, this was a good start.
The negative aspects: I believe that the main issue was that he betrayed a lack of self-confidence.
The US leg of the trip was aimed at his getting closer to the US public, but he ended up keeping a distance from two groups: the press and the Chinese community. During previous US visits by Chinese leaders, there have been various events arranged in which they could meet with the mainstream press to make known their ideas, but these were few and far between during Xi’s visit. Neither did he seem all that keen to mingle with the Chinese community there.
During a banquet in Los Angeles, he spent two hours glued to his chair, declining to walk around the venue and chat with guests who had paid substantial amounts of money for the privilege of attending. One can understand where he was coming from in his dealings with these two groups. He was clearly being cautious, knowing full well that the more he said, the more chance he had of putting his foot in his mouth.
However, his caution also revealed two things: first, his lack of confidence in himself and, second, that he still does not have the authority to pronounce on Chinese affairs. There has been talk that both Xi and Li Keqiang (李克強) — likely the next Chinese premier — have already taken on the responsibilities of their future positions, before they officially start, and have already begun to make their own decisions on important issues. However, from Xi’s manner over the course of this trip it would seem that this is not the case, as otherwise he would not have been so cautious.
This degree of caution detracted from the significance of his trip. This trip was supposed to show people in the West something of the man, what he looks like, what he sounds like. In these terms it was a success, but they still do not know much about what his ideas are. He made a few friends, but these friends are going to want to know more about what makes him tick.
Wang Dan is a visiting assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at National Tsing Hua University.
Translated by Paul Cooper