Many Chinese Americans and immigrants see President Xi as a new kind of leader, both strong and modern. But some also worry about where his consolidation of power is headed.
Chinese student Allan Cai brimmed with excitement as he talked about the possibility of meeting the president of his homeland, Xi Jinping. The University of Washington senior, who is studying business and psychology, hopes to be among a crowd organized by the UW’s Chinese Students and Scholars to welcome Xi to Seattle.
“I would love to go,” Cai said. The presence of not only Xi but an array of top CEOs, who will attend a technology forum on the Microsoft campus, adds to the appeal. This could be the beginning of a new era in business relations between the U.S. and China, he speculated, and he wants to be a part of it.
His assessment rests upon a commonly held notion among Chinese immigrants, expats and observers that Xi is different from his predecessors. Like virtually everyone asked about Xi, Cai referred to the president’s celebrated anti-corruption campaign, which reaches into the highest levels of government. The UW student also noted Xi’s proclaimed intention to introduce market reforms into the largely state-controlled economy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at Paine Field in Everett this morning.
This afternoon: Meets with Washington officials and U.S. governors at the Westin Hotel in Seattle.
This evening: Will speak at a dinner for business leaders, also at the Westin. For a complete itinerary,see A6.
“He is a modern leader,” said Assunta Ng, publisher of Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly, and a member of a host committee appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
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Or at least Xi talks as if he is. The president’s actions, including his consolidation of power and alleged perpetuation of human-rights abuses, have left others wondering where exactly he stands.
“There’s a sense of uncertainty,” said Don Zang, co-director of the UW’s Asian Law Center. “People are not exactly sure what his next move will be.”
Tibetan and Taiwanese leaders in Seattle argue that things already are getting worse for their people, and they plan protests to convey that message to Xi and the CEOs who will meet with him.
“Dream” of optimism
Xi rose to power in 2012 talking about “the Chinese dream” — a new concept for his country, and one with echoes of the American trope, with a touch of Reganesque “morning-in-America” optimism.
Xi called for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” said Bob Kapp, a Port Townsend-based consultant who has long worked on China-U.S. relations, including as the founding executive director of the Washington State China Relations Council. This rejuvenation would mark a firm end to a period of foreign defeats and occupation that is sometimes referred to as China’s “century of humiliation.”
“It’s a powerful call,” Kapp said.
And an accurate one. China has become an economic superpower.
Xi has put his face on that achievement, according to Kapp. A hagiographic picture of the president graces the cover of “The Governance of China,” a widely distributed book of Xi’s collected speeches and other works. In graphics and design, Kapp noted, the book bears a striking resemblance to another famous book by a Chinese leader: the “Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung.”
Xi may not have quite the following that Mao did. Nor is the current president likely to attract the kind of rock-star adulation that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did when he came to the U.S. last year, said Nelson Dong, a Chinese-American attorney who co-heads the Asia practice of the law firm Dorsey & Whitney.
But certainly, Dong said, Xi inspires “very warm feelings” and a sense of pride.
Witness Ng’s expression of pleased wonder in regard to the number of people who are lining up to meet Xi on his American trip and talk business. It’s a situation she said she couldn’t have imagined several years ago.
In the days of China’s humbler past, she added, some emigrants were embarrassed to admit their heritage. “Now if people say, ‘Are you Chinese?,’ we say ‘yes!’ ”
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign builds upon that pride. Ng calls him “very brave.”
“Some would say: Yes, but he seems to be taking out mostly people in the political opposition,” cautioned Dong.
It’s noteworthy that Xi is considered China’s strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping, who led the country from 1978 to 1992. Xi, Dong said, has “taken most of the oxygen out of the room for other wings of the party.”
It’s also telling that a Communist Party disciplinary committee has investigated many of the corruption cases, according to Zang, the UW law professor, who hails from Beijing. Only when the party committee is finished does it hand a case over, as a fait accompli, to prosecutors in the criminal-justice system.
Normally, he said, you would expect prosecutors to handle investigations — especially because Xi has repeatedly placed emphasis on the “rule of law.”
What’s more, Zang continued, Xi’s government has in the past few months arrested a slew of human-rights attorneys (more than 200, including associates, according to news reports) and accused them of orchestrating protests. Zang has been talking with attorneys throughout China who are concerned that the rule of law is not being followed with them, either.
Zang said such conflicting signals operate in the economic realm, as well. The president talks about market reforms but at the same time practices tight control of state-owned enterprises.
Meanwhile, Xi’s government has implemented “a complete clampdown” on China-controlled Tibet, according to Jampa Jorkhang, incoming president of the Tibetan Association of Washington. Religious figures and observers are branded political activists and subject to arbitrary arrest, he said. Self-immolation, as a form of protest, has picked up as a result, with about 80 dying that way in the past year, according to Jorkhang.
John Chou, a spokesman for People for Democratic Taiwan of the Greater Seattle Area, said the Taiwanese also are nervously watching Xi’s tightening of control, as well as his government’s military drills in the South China Sea. The fear is that China, which lays claims to self-ruled Taiwan, might become more aggressive.
All that doesn’t necessarily register with most Chinese people. Xi is aided by a populist persona, noted for being more open and approachable than past leaders, and more attentive to the needs of ordinary people. Even on this short visit to Seattle, he will meet not just politicians and CEOs but students at a Tacoma high school, observed Chinese PR consultant and former journalist Grace Zhang, who lives in Sammamish.
But even some of his admirers note that Xi has implemented new and sometimes strict rules.
Zehua Wei, a Chinese graduate student in chemical engineering at the UW, said children of Chinese officials who are studying in the U.S. must return home within a year of graduation. As he understands it, the motivation is to prevent officials from using their children to accumulate wealth in the U.S. Wei called the rule “reasonable.”
Incoming UW freshman Josephine Zhang, also from China, noted that Xi’s concern about the gap between the rich and poor has affected not only top officials but also some everyday managers and employees of state-owned businesses. She said her mother, who works for a mining company, no longer receives grocery coupons that were once a prerogative of the job.
Zhang is not complaining. Her family is still getting by. “I just don’t want him to take it to another extreme,” she said.