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Advice for Xi Jinping

A ChinaFile Conversation

Later this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Washington for a state visit with President Obama. This week, a group of China experts from America traveled to Beijing to offer their advice to Chinese officials on how to conduct the visit. We asked them what message they hoped to convey. —The Editors

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What will make a “successful summit” between Presidents Obama and Xi would be if they joined together, based on their agreement last year at the APEC Summit, to lead the rest of the world in reaching agreement at the United Nations’ upcoming Paris talks on a new climate change treaty. For the two largest economies in the world to act together in an international forum on one of the most pressing global issues would demonstrate that despite other differences, this is a working partnership on areas of convergent interest.

The same would be true if China reaffirms that it will insist, along with the U.S. and the other world powers, on the full implementation of the Vienna accord on Iran’s nuclear agreement. Joining together on non-proliferation also demonstrates that the two major powers can work together to contain non-proliferation threats. In private talks, with perhaps a public hint, they might suggest this model can work with regards to North Korea.

On China’s part, it needs to explain its transition to “the new normal” of a domestic, consumption based growth model from an export-led investment model and, as China’s central banker did at the G-20 finance minister’s meeting in Ankara, note that the stock market “correction” is more or less complete, as they see it. China’s growth trajectory is even more important for the global economy as the U.S. Federal Reserves impending interest rate increase. The Chinese should take the same communicative stance and clarify where it is headed as the Fed officials have been doing.

The stumbling blocks most likely to come up are cyberspace and the new NGO law being promulgated in China.

While the American public may have regarded China’s island reclamation and its extravagant military display on the 70th Anniversary of Japan’s defeat as worrisome signs that China is no longer “biding its time and hiding its strength” but “seizing the moment and baring its teeth.” But in the recent cyberattacks (notably, when the 21 million employees whose information was hacked in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management hack, allegedly by Chinese actors) they see China actually taking an aggressive bite. This is particularly true of the business community which sees a protracted campaign to steal intellectual property from American businesses.

There is no higher priority in relations between the U.S. and China than to begin serious “cyber-detente” negotiations to establish a code of conduct.

Obviously, China, too, has serious concerns on the security side given the Snowden revelations and that fact that much, if not most, of China’s switching systems and other telecom hardware is from U.S. companies. This issue, unaddressed, is driving a deep wedge between the two countries that will be hard to repair going forward if not acted upon now.

Finally, the issue of China’s new NGO law will come up when Xi meets with the U.S. Congress. In Beijing this week, I met the vice-chair of the Legal Affairs Committee of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which is drafting the law. He explained that this law must have three readings before a final proposal is ready for a vote. It is a matter for the NPC, not President Xi. Two readings have now taken place and the third is in the works. To its credit, the Committee has solicited and received testimony and proposed amendments to the law from dozens of foreign NGOS, including American universities and think tanks such as Brookings, and seems to be taking them seriously, understanding that this is not just a domestic law, but one which affects foreigners operating in a China, and thus international relations. When I met President Xi last year, he declared that China’s "opening up to the world will never be rolled back."

However, key NGOs are rightly worried that this is another attempt at political control since the legislation as it currently stands calls for NGO registration with the public security ministry, not the civil affairs administration.

This is already putting a chill on the activities of some of China’s closest friends in the West— universities engaged in “people to people” relations or environmental groups who hope, like China’s leaders, to promote a cleaner environment.

What, the NGO’s worry, will happen if Beijing’s air quality is criticized, or if the Federalist Papers are taught in Constitutional Law 101, or macroeconomic case studies criticize over-indebtedness of localities or stock market manipulation? Will they be accused of “subverting” China’s laws and the rules of public security, “stirring up conflict” and “manufacturing chaos?”

One need only look at the “white paper” of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party that on Monday (Sept. 7) released its “white paper" on the 50th anniversary of Tibet’s ethnic autonomy policy to see how real the concern is. According to the paper, “the reincarnation application [for the next ‘living Buddha’] must be approved by the State Council.” If state control reaches even into the metaphysical ether, NGOs are surely within bounds to wonder what is in store for their activities on the university campuses and environmental research teams on the ground in a China less and less open to the world, despite the declarations of President Xi.

President Xi's state visit to the U.S. comes at a time of profound doubt as to China's economic outlook. Americans—right up to President Obama— don't know whether this is a summit between two strong economies or, rather, an increasingly robust U.S. and a China too preoccupied with domestic fissures to embrace definitive market reform and external opening.

The most important thing China can do to promote a healthy summit is to clarify its economic reform intentions now, in order to clear these doubts from American minds. While this must include a broad program, highlights which would reset the mood in Washington include meaningful steps forward on a bilateral investment treaty, steps to reverse the erosion of mutual trust on information and communication technology policies, and the commencement of SOE reforms.

Xi Jinping is embarking on his third visit to the United States as a top Chinese official. His 2012 trip was a coming-out party: Americans knew he was in line to replace President Hu Jintao and wanted to see what he was made of. In 2013, President Xi was a newly-minted leader and Americans were willing to treat China’s leadership transition as an opportunity for a re-start in U.S.-China relations. At the 2013 ‘shirt sleeve’ summit the U.S. put down some red lines—such as cyber espionage for commercial gain—and both sides cautiously explored areas of potential future cooperation and discord.

Now, in 2015, the warm-up period is over. This time President Xi will face a barrage of questions from concerned Americans worried about the Chinese stock market, Chinese market access for American firms, alleged Chinese state-sponsored cyberattacks against U.S. systems, China’s new island in the South China Sea, and a new Chinese law that seems to be aiming to exert unprecedented police control over American universities and think tanks conducting policy research and other people-to-people activities in mainland China.

This time President Xi is showing up as a seasoned Chinese leader. He already has launched massive anti-corruption and economic reform programs that are redefining China’s political landscape. Those of us who analyze China for a living know it is exceedingly difficult to overcome internal opposition to a major reform program in Beijing, but it is probably impossible for any outsider to truly understand how much grit and tenacity it takes to turn a ship the size of China.

We need President Xi to show some of that toughness in the United States, but in a novel way for a Chinese leader: we need him to show that he can handle these hard questions and speak frankly about his perspectives on these issues. Does he understand why American businesses are frustrated? He may not agree with their views, but can he show that he has at least heard and seriously considered those views?

Directly addressing American concerns is the only way to move beyond the difficult questions that divide us and explore some of our truly extraordinary opportunities for coordination. With every summit the list of issues that we can only solve by working together gets longer. Combatting global climate change, implementing the Iran deal, rebuilding Afghanistan—the stakes have never been higher. If President Xi shows up in Seattle willing to engage key U.S. interest groups on their top China concerns that will clear the air and enable both governments to get down to business when President Xi moves on to Washington.