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Xi Jinping’s U.S. Visit: Sino-American Relations Need a New Start

February 8, 2012

18th Party Congress Watch (3)

Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s upcoming U.S. visit is no ordinary exchange visit between the leaders of two countries, but a new round in the contest between two great powers. Xi’s visit will also coincide with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué, in which both countries pledged to normalize ties. This is an important moment for China and the United States to reexamine and reposition their relations. That the lead character from China is a fifth generation leader of the Communist Party of China—and the presumed successor to Hu Jintao as leader of the regime—has added weight to the drama.

Sino-American relations are at an historic crossroads. The day that Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the White House happens to be Valentine’s Day. But in truth, the honeymoon of the two countries has long been over. They are now faced with political, economic, and diplomatic friction and conflict, and the smell of gunpowder is getting thicker and thicker. For China, relations with the United States are of primary importance. Any mishandling would not only have diplomatic repercussions, but also bring disaster to Chinese society in all aspects, further worsening China’s already difficult situation at home and abroad. China's leaders see this very clearly, and don’t dare take things lightly.

The chief objective of Xi’s trip is to stabilize the existing structure of Sino-American relations. To accomplish this, he has prepared a big “red envelope”—of trade deals—to seal America's lips, the same way that the Chinese authorities spend money to buy stability at home. But preserving the status quo is just wishful thinking on China’s part. China has for a long time manipulated the yuan exchange rate, sacrificed human rights and the environment, and engaged in unfair trade competition. These practices have seriously damaged American interests: in the U.S., they have caused an insurmountably high trade deficit, a huge loss of jobs, and a drag on economic recovery, resulting in serious problems in American society. That the U.S. finds this intolerable is evident in President Obama’s blunt remark at a November 2011 press conference: “Enough’s enough.” Republican presidential candidates are even trying to outdo one another in criticizing China. Some media outlets friendly to China attempted to soften the blow and said that all this is just “campaign talk.” But in fact, the need to do something about China’s unfair practices has become a bipartisan consensus. Whichever party wins the upcoming election will have to take steps to solve the problem; otherwise, it won’t be able to answer to the American people.

In fact, what needs to be done to straighten out Sino-American relations is very clear: the key is for China to abandon its abnormal development model, respect universal values, and improve its human rights situation. Doing so would produce a win-win situation. Those in power in China also understand this, but have failed to act time and again. This is because the “three lows”—low human rights, low social welfare, and low environmental protection—are the cornerstone of China's high-speed development. Any move to improve human rights or boost domestic consumer demands is bound to not only affect the economic growth rate but also upset the current pattern of profit distribution, harming the interests of the powerful corporations and of the monopolistic state-owned enterprises. This is something that the authorities absolutely will not undertake.

Xi Jinping’s upcoming U.S. visit will not be a relaxing one—it has to do with stabilizing the overall situation of Sino-U.S. relations and it is of utmost importance for consolidating his own succession status. Historically, CPC leaders have been able to use the U.S. to increase their weight within the Party. When Mao Zedong, then the “anti-imperialist standard-bearer,” was stymied by the Lin Biao Incident,1 he used President Nixon’s China visit to extricate himself to a considerable degree from a political tough spot. When Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. shortly after his return to power, he wore a cowboy hat, and stated his commitment to the “lessons” of Vietnam. The trip gave him a firm foothold on power and helped pave his way to being the supreme leader.

After decades of engagement, China and the U.S. should now establish a new starting point. Though the two countries are highly complementary economically, their core values differ vastly. This difference is the biggest obstacle in the further development of their bilateral ties. While fully enjoying the benefits of economic globalization, China stubbornly rejects universal values and international human rights norms. This rejection not only harms the basic human rights of the Chinese people, but also endangers other nations. This kind of profiteering at the expense of others should stop. Human rights standards should become an important index for measuring Sino-American relations from this point forward. The new starting point begins here.

1. Lin, Mao Zedong’s handpicked successor, and members of his family died in a plane crash in 1971, after Mao accused Lin of plotting a coup to topple him. ^

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