Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in San Francisco*

I learned the importance of following China’s official press from Father Lazlo Ladany and Simon Leys, and understand that the party language that is printed in these publications has great relevance when it comes to interpreting how the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party views its own country as well as its positioning in the world.

In recent years, the tone in articles published in the People’s Daily about the United States has been increasingly critical. In Beijing, perceptions about Washington are somewhat ambivalent. While America is considered to be in decline, it is also seen as wishing to destroy the CCP and contain China’s claims in Asia and the rest of the world. Nonetheless, in a recent personal letter to Harry Moyer and Melvin McCullen, veteran pilots who fought in Claire Lee Chenault’s Flying Tigers unit alongside Nationalist Chinese forces against the Japanese empire in 1941-1942, Xi Jinping wrote that “the relationship in the new era requires the input and support of a new generation of Flying Tigers.” This historical reference is significant at a time like this.

On Nov. 15, Xi had a bilateral meeting with Joe Biden on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in San Francisco, a city where one-fifth of the population has Chinese ancestry. Xi went into this meeting with Biden and North American corporate leaders with three objectives in mind. The first was to stress the CCP’s strong opposition to the policies regarding Taiwan pursued by both the White House and the U.S. Congress. Beijing wants a clear commitment from Washington that, as Taiwan prepares for presidential elections in January, it will not support that island’s unilateral independence. The second objective was to persuade the Biden administration that it would be mutually beneficial to end the embargo on American exports of high-tech products to Chinese companies. And last, Xi recognizes the need to continue attracting direct foreign investment and knowledge in order to further modernize China’s economy.

The difficulties faced by China’s leader have much to do with the impact of geography on China’s governance and the growing ideological rigidity of the party he has led for a decade. Fifteen hundred years ago, China’s dimensions, as well as its geographic and cultural diversity, led the Sui dynasty to begin constructing a highly centralized, hierarchic and bureaucratic political system. In time, this resulted in a stronger state, but also one that was allergic to decentralization, diversity and political innovation. Xi’s Marxist-Leninist ideology reinforces this historical tendency, and prevents the economic reforms that China needs. In Washington and the rest of Asia, the main question is whether or not the current economic challenges in China — the result of debt increases, decreased domestic demand and the growing political claustrophobia imposed by the CCP — will spur China to pursue greater political risks. The answer to this question will be critical for foreign investors.

The trajectory of the current relationship between Beijing and Washington underscores the importance of the meeting between Xi and Biden in San Francisco. Both sides are trying to define and negotiate the terms of their strategic competition going forward, in the face of enormous risks, costs, domestic challenges and some opportunities. How they navigate and evaluate these efforts will, to a large extent, determine our future.

*Editor’s Note: This article is available in its original language with a paid subscription.

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