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How Should the U.S. Conduct the Xi Jinping State Visit?

A ChinaFile Conversation

As tensions increase between China and the United States over the value of the yuan, human rights violations, alleged cyber attacks, and disputed maritime territories, among other issues, how should the Obama administration conduct the upcoming state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping? (Update: GOP Presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on August 24 called for Obama to cancel Xi's visit altogether.) —The Editors

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It has long been presumed that economic integration can and will mitigate U.S.-China security competition. But to put it bluntly, this does not seem to be happening. So when President Xi Jinping visits Washington next month, it is essential that the U.S. and China use his visit to confront, not tiptoe around, the underlying reasons for this.

The central problem in Asia today is the collision between economics and security. In “Economic Asia,” a dynamic group of countries, including China and the United States, trades, invests, and increasingly innovates together. This Asia is a prosperous $21 trillion juggernaut and, especially since the 2008 global financial crisis, has become the center of gravity in the world economy. But another Asia, “Security Asia,” has locked many of these same countries into an increasingly debilitating cycle of competition, arms buildups, and clashing security concepts. Instead of an “Asian century,” the region’s story resembles a “Tale of Two Asias,” with economics and security colliding, not running in parallel.

That is precisely the dynamic that confronts Presidents Xi and Obama. The United States and China have never been so economically integrated: Two-way trade has reached nearly $600 billion, and the total value of Chinese investments in the United States, once minuscule, has passed a staggering $54 billion, with (very) considerable room to grow. Yet despite that integration, security tensions have escalated apace.

At the simplest level, the problem involves choices and policies in the South China Sea, cyber-related tensions, and so on. But there are four deeper problems that exacerbate security tensions and, more strikingly, make coordination difficult even on issues where the two sides share interests:

First, Washington and Beijing have some clashing security concepts in Asia and, as a result, increasingly are talking past each other. In the South China Sea, for example, Beijing asserts maritime rights and interests, while Washington talks mostly about international norms, rules, and law. The two governments disagree, fundamentally, on how to interpret some important aspects of international law. Indeed, the U.S. perceives that China acts as if its interests trump international law.

Second, even when the two sides share interests, these are, too often, overly general in nature—“peace,” “stability,” “security,” “non-provocation,” and so on.

Third, the two sides often view one another’s policies as undermining their ostensibly “shared” interests. Take North Korea: some Americans argue that Chinese policies have shielded Pyongyang from the effects of the international sanctions Beijing voted for. Or look at Central Asia, where the two sides repeatedly have declared a shared commitment to “stability” and “security.” As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the region in 2006 and 2007, `I heard Chinese officials argue ad infinitum that U.S. actions to promote political reform would undermine this shared interest and, ultimately, destabilize these countries.

Fourth, the U.S. and China have had trouble turning (abstract) common interests into (concrete) complementary policies because of countervailing interests that, too often, obstruct cooperation. In Afghanistan, for example, China certainly has shared America’s core interest for over a decade: a stable Afghan state that does not harbor, nurture, or export terrorism. But cooperation proved elusive for much of this period because Beijing never relished a path to victory that might yield a long-term NATO presence on China’s western border or require U.S. access agreements in Central Asia.

What does this mean for the Xi visit?

For one, the U.S. and China need to thicken economic cooperation, and soon, especially around two-way investment. This will not overcome security competition but at least it will help to anchor it in a strengthened framework. This would mean, for example, making real gains toward a serious Bilateral Investment Treaty and demonstrable progress on the cyber problem, which threatens to ride the relationship off the rails and, in collateral damage, undermine support for U.S.-China ties in corporate America.

Similarly, the U.S. and China badly need a track record of concrete successes in places where shared strategic interests exist but remain too abstract. This doesn’t require joint projects and actions, merely complementary ones. Take, for example, counternarcotics in Afghanistan and Central Asia: China works bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; the United States works mostly bilaterally through security assistance and capacity building. But Washington and Beijing don’t need joint efforts, just to coordinate areas of focus, direct their financial assistance at similar drugs-related goals, and build complementary capacity while maintaining separate efforts.

Ultimately, to deploy an American baseball metaphor, this means not always “swinging for the fences.” Often, the U.S. has sought security cooperation with China, but failed. But working on more peripheral issues can give the two countries a chance to work over time toward more significant strategic issues. For instance, coordinating some international economic policies will likely prove easier than coordinating security policies. One example would be to encourage coordination between the international financial institutions and the new China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That would provide both sides some multilateral “cover,” and thus prove easier than coordinating bilaterally.

In my view the Xi visit should be canceled, as should the Abe visit to Beijing. By forcing the Chinese to focus on the real problems their actions are causing and ceasing at least for the time the charade of engagement, such an action would contribute to improvement in relations.

Rather than search pointlessly for understanding, win-win propositions, etc.—all of which the Chinese understand well and use against us—it is time to hammer them (in private) on rights and military behavior. They have to clean up their act. We need to make clear something we dare not: namely that sanctions that bite are the alternative. Fear of sanctions—treat them like Russia as would be proportional—may get something. Sadly discussion is a dead end. After 1989, the enlightened faction disappeared from the CCP. These messages must be hard as nails, private and ambassadorial. They must not be all over the press

So far better to cancel now than risk a slip. Abe should cancel quietly too and the message conveyed privately that until they make some real changes, Peking will be Minsk or Moscow in our policy (Russia of course scores about a point higher on Freedom House’s index—unfree, but upper half—than China). We must also insist on reciprocity—i.e. Perry Link gets a visa, and Xinhua operates under same rules our journalists do in China. Nothing here an Ambassador cannot convey. No need for a visit.

How to fill the time? Full state visit for President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Foreign Minister Bold and a delegation from Mongolia, red carpets, toasts to democracy and new enhanced relations.

This is a good time to send a tougher message to China’s. Their run of good luck has unexpectedly ended. They are stumbling and want some symbolic foreign policy success—at no real cost to themselves as is our custom. Their economy is headed south; Tianjin has seen horrific explosions; their foreign policy in Asia is making them a host of new enemies. Their theory of victory—that psychological factors would lead all to recognize their preponderance—has failed. Parades, naval reviews, etc. are fine. But really to go further they will have to shoot. If they shoot we get uncontrollable escalating conflict, the worst possible outcome—and they seem scarcely to have considered seriously.

So this is a time for use of serious unapologetic leverage. Nothing from us or Japan until they make real tangible changes. Real. Privately explained. Till then Russia Belarus level protocol.

Above all Xi must not be humiliated. If he ever comes it should be smooth anodyne and status enhancing. Public argument would be a disaster. We and Japan should make clear: No red carpet, no 21-gun salute, no state dinner until we see real change. When we see it, champagne.

Time is propitious for much needed reset. It could avoid conflict owed to Chinese misunderstanding of Washington. So let us do it.

Evan Feigenbaum makes some very relevant and helpful suggestions for what Presidents Obama and Xi need to address at their upcoming summit in Washington, D.C., this September.

“Even when the two sides share interests,” Feigenbaum notes in passing, “These are, too often, overly general in nature—‘peace,’ ‘stability,’ ‘security,’ ‘non-provocation,’ and so on.”

Here Feigenbaum is absolutely right. After all, the bitter reality of global politics is that nations rarely subordinate their own perceived national interests to any common purpose, unless they first identify a convergence between the two. So, unless the U.S. and China both uncover such a common interest, it is unlikely that September’s summit, or any other convocation for that matter, will produce very meaningful results. This is lamentable because the reality of our contemporary world is that, like it or not, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China matter to each other more than ever. Moreover, if the world is ever to reestablish a new 21st Century global order, these two Pacific nations will necessarily become the keystones of any such new arch.

Unfortunately, the two nations are divided not just by an ocean and the proximity of different continents, but by a yawning cultural and historical divide, and even wider political differences. While the United States of America is a new world nation steeped in enlightenment values with an irrepressible tendency to evangelize for liberal multi-party democracy, China is an ancient country steeped in traditional Asian/Confucian culture that was first overthrown by a Marxist–Leninist revolution, and then evolved into a hybrid experiment in authoritarian capitalism. But as dissimilar as these two countries and their polities are, they nonetheless now find themselves inescapably at the very center of the new global proposition. Simply put, the modern world will not be able function effectively without their mutual cooperation. In large measure, then, the evolution of the relationship between the U.S. and China will determine whether the quest for global stability in the 21st Century finds a new shape, or remains a chimera.

But, before allowing too much pessimism to abound, it is perhaps helpful to remind ourselves that in the past, the two countries have, despite all their differences, managed to find common interest and come together. In the early 1970s, during the middle of the Cold War, the curtain went up on what we might describe as Act I of the U.S. and China’s modern relational odyssey. Then, the unexpected common ground between the two countries turned out to be, as U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger discovered during their interactions with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Beijing, their mutual distrust of the U.S.S.R. And it was the recognition of this new common interest that brought about the unlikely and path breaking 1972 rapprochement between the two estranged countries.

Act II began in 1978 when Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, who had returned to power following Mao’s death in 1976, began to articulate his bold new program of “reform and opening up.” At the invitation of President Jimmy Carter, Deng made his milestone 1979 visit to Washington, D.C. (and Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle) to restore full diplomatic relations with the U.S. The new common interest underlaying this phase of our rapprochement was a shared belief in the transformative powers of reform. Although interpreted somewhat differently on each side of the U.S.-China divide, and despite China’s ongoing one-party system of government, Americans nonetheless had grounds to trust that the People’s Republic of China under Deng was committed nonetheless to implementing a comprehensive reform agenda that would not only be both economic and political in scope, but ineluctably would move China closer to its own self-declared historic mission of someday becoming a constitutional republic under the rule of law. This common hope—in retrospect it would perhaps be more accurate to call it a dream—provided a basis not only for much bilateral hopefulness and goodwill, but growing amounts of trade, exchange and cooperation. And, as long as the two societies seemed to be converging toward a roughly common economic and political goal, rather than diverging, there was a reasonable basis for a certain sense of common purpose and shared interest.

Act III opened after the bloodshed ending the seven tectonic weeks of mass demonstration that shook Beijing and China in 1989. In the aftermath of June 4th Movement, it soon became evident that things had changed significantly not only in China, but between the U.S. and China. While Deng Xiaoping was finally able to restart economic reform after “the turmoil” of June 4th, he was unwilling to countenance the continuation of meaningful political reforms. This change in internal policy had a subtle but profound external repercussions on China’s relations with America. It left the U.S.-China relationship adrift without a common political purpose. But even though for the moment the promise of political reform, while not entirely eschewed, remained at best deferred, the two countries were nonetheless finally able to partially re-stabilize their relations around a commitment to such joint efforts as boosting bi-lateral trade, getting China into the WTO, and enhancing the rule of law.

Act IV of the U.S.-China drama opened with the investiture of Xi Jinping as Party General Secretary and President in 2012-13. As his new tenure slowly revealed, while he continued to be committed to deeper economic reform, Xi showed virtually no interest in deepening political reform. Indeed, as the months of his rule continued, not only did he gather more power into his own hands than any leader since Mao, but he also began a significant tightening up on almost all aspects of Chinese political, cultural, media, academic, and NGO life. By mid-2015 it had become abundantly clear that his version of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” had very few remaining common chords with the liberal democratic world’s global agenda of promoting more democratic and open societies.

As more and more U.S. officials and opinion makers began to entertain the need for a substantially new and more forceful U.S. reaction, the U.S.-China relationship edged towards a dangerous point of inflection. Whether the new Chinese leadership fully realized the dangerous consequences of their more belligerent and authoritarian policies both for their country, the U.S.-China relationship, and the world, is a question for which we outsiders have no clear answer. But the stand off between the two countries has created an increasingly sour, if not dangerous, relationship.

But, actually, an unexpected and quite promising new factor has arisen, one that could re-stabilize the core of the shaken U.S.-China relationship with a latter-day common interest and, if diplomacy on both sides is done deftly, usher the two nations into a more hopeful figurative Act V their odyssey. This new factor is the threat of runaway greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, a concern that both Presidents Obama and Xi have begun to acknowledge as imperiling the future wellbeing of both of our nations and the world. Should the two countries actually succeed in coalescing around this critical global issue in a constructive way, not only might they help the U.S. and China come together in a common endeavor of enormous importance, but also help lead the entire international community out of this existential environmental impasse.

With both presidents having already jointly committed at last year’s APEC summit in Beijing to peaking their own nation’s carbon emissions growth by 2030, their upcoming Washington summit now presents an incomparable opportunity to put this challenge at the very center of the U.S.-China relation and build out from it. Success would give new grounds for hope that this great generational challenge might galvanize a more meaningful partnership between the two nations.

Of course, with so many new disagreements, points of friction and asymmetries between the values and political systems of the two nations, such a positive outcome is still far from guaranteed. The alternative for U.S.-China relations is bleak. Perhaps the most depressing possible eventuality would be ending up at the kind of dead-end in which the U.S. and Europe now find themselves with Putin’s Russia, a place where the world is beyond any hope of finding a “reset button.” But, since China is far more consequential to the U.S. and to the world than is Russia, and since relations have not yet reached such a nadir, there is still a margin of hope. It would be an enormous loss to let this critical relationship reach such a state of impasse without having made as Herculean an effort as possible to arrest the downward slide.

President Obama’s November 2014 state visit to China, while brief, was notable for the very promising series of agreements the two leaders made, on issues ranging from climate change to the issuance of longer-term visas for citizens of each country visiting the other. These positive developments came as a surprise to much of the public, the media, and many China specialists, given the long list of divisive issues and tensions enveloping the U.S. and China. The agreements were reached through extensive, discreet negotiations among professionals in government service.

The intervening months, however, have witnessed new developments disheartening to many of us who have worked long and hard for productive and positive Sino-American relations. China has moved ahead with a raft of “security” measures, both on the civil society and legal fronts, in response to threats from “hostile Western forces” and “Western values,” in ways repellent to many American observers. Its incessant island-building in the South China Sea and its unceasing propaganda campaigns against Japan, in the context of its maximalist commemoration of the defeat of Japan in 1945, leave Americans with an unsettling impression of boastfulness and military cockiness. China’s economic slowdown, its much-publicized stock market volatility, and the recent change in its currency policy have all left their marks on traditional American economic optimism with respect to China. The lengthening anti-corruption campaign attests to the depths of China’s internal governance issues, and the ticking of the clock reveals that many of the regime’s vaunted “reform” policies have proceeded haltingly, if at all.

Now, on the brink of yet another U.S. presidential campaign season, China is once more becoming a throwaway line for hell-raising candidates on the stump. Just as American analysts try to determine the significance of flamboyant best-selling Chinese nationalist writers, many of them from the military, who offer a heady mixture of anti-foreignism and military bravado, Chinese observers from President Xi on down will surely wonder how to interpret the raging insults and contemptuous sneers of various aspirants to White House authority as they careen through the great American metropolitan centers of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

All state visits entail protocol details and ceremony, and plenty of media exposure for the home-country audience. That certainly goes for U.S. presidents visiting China.

Chinese government preparations for state visits to the U.S., I can note from experience, are meticulous and demanding, bent on ensuring that there will be no surprises, no spontaneity, no untoward moments to mar the flawless images of their leader’s progress through the nation that China simultaneously most respects and resents, envies and fears. Unlike the more private and informal “Sunnylands Summit” in California in 2013, President Xi this time will get the full protocol treatment (hopefully without the gasp-inducing blunders that tainted Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit to Washington). Americans may roll their eyes at some of the stagey media overkill, but a state visit is a state visit, part of a significant and complicated relationship between global behemoths. Especially given that President Obama has already been welcomed on a state visit to China, it is idle to think of this return visit as some sort of gift to a foreign potentate who has not earned the privilege. The president of the United States is not the Qianlong Emperor of China, who in 1793 sent King George’s first emissary packing with a condescending wave of the hand.

Events like this tend to evoke a torrent of predictive, prescriptive, or admonitory prose from Americans who either feel they need to impress important perspectives on U.S. visit-planners or who feel they can’t not publish for fear that their peer competitors will. Duplication and repetition are a burden in any such China torrent, and at the end of the day I suspect that such pontificating has little impact on those with actual policy responsibilities. So, for ChinaFile today, I’ll only make a couple of general observations.

We may dismiss China’s famous formulation for U.S.-China relations, “A new type of major power relations” as manipulative cant, but, stilted phraseology aside, there is something to the idea. In fact, sooner or later each government must decide whether the other country is so significant that special weight must be accorded to that nation’s interests and concerns. The longer this basic decision is delayed, the greater the dangers of an uncontrolled slide into unnecessary confrontation.

For the U.S., the answer to that question may well be “no.” The U.S. has fish to fry worldwide; in some senses, China is just another “problem” to deal with, and—at least in the short run—not as pressing a “problem” as other domestic and international issues. Furthermore, developments of recent months have given Americans reason to see that American concerns do not carry special weight with the Chinese government under its powerful and dominating leader, Xi Jinping; if anything, Americans might conclude, China has built a persistent antagonism toward American views into its core political strategy for the future.

For their part, the Chinese authorities regularly complain that their views on matters they deem vital are ignored or dismissed by the United States, and directly or indirectly make reference to America’s presumed campaign of political hostility and even subversion.

If the answer, then, to the question of whether these two countries have so much at stake with each other that their needs and desires require special consideration is “no,” the two countries must accept the reality that the future will consist increasingly of disharmony, disenchantment, discord, and disarray. Certainly many so-called “realists” in the U.S. argue for that.

If, on the other hand, the answer is “yes,” then the two leaders, in a perfect world, would set about mapping a pathway toward the de-escalation of rising tensions across a whole menu of policy conflicts, economic and security frictions.

Twenty years ago, at a time of acute crisis between the U.S. and China, I mused in an article that the two nations might try to pursue a path of “reciprocal unilateralism,” according to which each country would, without indicating that it was acting at the demand of the other, unilaterally make an incremental change in its own behavior that comported with what it knew the other country desired. The other country, in turn, recognizing the meaning of the first country’s move, would respond with a unilateral action of its own, in a process that led to the phased build-down of tensions in vital areas of Sino-American engagement.

It would not require superhuman imagination for the two leaders and their governments to think in such terms now, when the economic engagement of the U.S. and the PRC is so gigantic and the magnitude of bilateral security issues has grown so much. To the already-enunciated intentions on such matters as the Bilateral Investment Treaty, climate change, anti-terrorism cooperation, and so on,(all important areas of bilateral cooperation, by the way) a future leader’s meeting could provide the impetus for the first steps in a “reciprocal unilateralist” process that could unfold over many years. (See Lyle Goldstein’s provocative book, Meeting China Halfway, for one scholar’s notions of how that process could be structured.)

We perceive, through much of the media these days, that Americans are angry, fed up, inconsolably divided along various axes, burdened by political dysfunction, at one and the same time chauvinistic and fearful of numberless global threats. In a word, we seem to talk endlessly about “getting tough” while our roads disintegrate and our schools plead for pennies.

As a host nation, we ourselves need to get a grip, and receive the leader of the world’s most populous nation with confidence and dignity.

Advancing American interests in a stable relationship with a China that continues to churn uncertainly at home while lurching toward a “China Dream” of greater global strength will remain a demanding, unending, laborious and politically fraught process. State visits and the extension of official courtesies are a necessary but not sufficient part of that process. Let there be neither obsequiousness nor casual condescension. Let us make our country’s best efforts in receiving Xi Jinping, making clear and living up to our defining values, and advance our most vital national interests – not all of which are military or even economic. We certainly should expect nothing less from the Chinese leader and his throng of attending officials.

Orville Schell suggests that Tiananmen Square left the U.S.-China relationship adrift without a common purpose. But did it? Or is it perhaps more accurate to say that Tiananmen eliminated any developing political trust between the U.S. and China, but what remained was a common interest in economic development that has formed the basis of U.S.-China cooperation for the past quarter century? China wanted to join the ranks of wealthy states, the United States wanted to benefit from the profits of helping them. But now that China’s economic miracle, built on cheap manufacturing for export, seems to have run its course, is the tattered economic relationship that remains strong enough glue to cement the two parties into a framework of stability? A second challenge remains that each of the four previous commentators addresses. China’s increasingly assertive external behavior has eroded even the small measure of strategic confidence that once existed between our two countries. These two negative dynamics—the economic and the political—define the U.S.-China relationship today and cast a shadow on the upcoming Xi-Obama Summit.

What can be done about it? Arthur Waldron suggests the U.S. cancel Xi’s visit as an imposed cost for bad behavior and create a fear of sanctions, but that “above all Xi must not be humiliated.” These are incompatible goals. In my view, the only outcome worse than talking to the Chinese about the challenges we have with their behavior would to stop talking with them. Private conversations are not enough. Sometimes summits are required. Additionally, it is effects of American sanctions that drive Russia and China together, not enduring mutual interests. No, Orville Schell is right when he says U.S.-China cooperation is the better path to improved functioning of the modern world. To find that path it is time to re-map our common interests and, as Evan Feigenbaum points out, to turn abstract interests into concrete interests. Perhaps to do so it is time to return to the economic basis for U.S.-China cooperation, in a new form.

One area that poses great potential for concrete overlapping economic interests that has been given almost no consideration by American policy makers is China’s One Belt-One Road (OBOR) initiative. Recently, some very serious commentators have expressed concern about American inattention to this strategic development as if Mackinder’s prediction of Eurasian world dominion were at hand. But challenges such as the tyranny of geography, limits to technology, great power competition, regional competition, armed group disruption, and the enduring value of trade by sea makes such an outcome highly unlikely. Rather than knitting together the economies of the China, the heartland, and Europe, the likely real benefit of China’s OBOR infrastructure development plans is that they will unlock to the greater global economy great portions of inland Eurasia that remain isolated from the larger global economy. Thus, a new “Integrated Era” may be before us—not of integrated Eurasia, as Mackinder feared, but for the first time in human history of a truly integrated global economy. One that employs improved infrastructure to open the black holes of the heartland economy to the light of the global maritime economy.

The United States built the current global system and the maritime rules supporting it. If we recognize that a new opportunity for U.S.-China economic engagement and cooperation is emerging, we will find economic benefit from it and preserve our leading position. At the summit in September, there will be myriad political issues to address—China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, fundamental violations of human rights, RMB devaluation, debt, and stock market fluctuations. It is my hope that in the midst of the pressing, President Obama does not forget the important. Future American power will require some form of cooperation with Chinese power. Finding a path toward shared wealth through China’s OBOR initiative may be just the concrete shared interest the two leaders are looking for.

The year 2013 brought the publication of a book called Dragon in Ambush: The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong by the late American poet Jeremy Ingalls (1911-2000). Ingalls, who is well known for abstruse literary allusion in her poetry, also studied classical Chinese at the University of Chicago in the 1940s and brings her highly erudite style to her study of Mao.

She examines Mao’s allusions to Sunzi’s The Art of War, Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, and other classic works, and finds a second level of meaning in poems that Mao wrote between 1925 and 1936 and that he carefully revised as late as 1963. The poems are not, she argues, mere paeans to Red Army victories but are coded self-congratulations on how clever Mao is at outsmarting adversaries, including comrades who compete with him for power. China’s ordinary people are but pawns, their lives expendable in whatever numbers he might find necessary. Ingalls’ premise that classical poetry is a tool for expressing a person’s innermost feelings has strong roots in Chinese tradition, and Mao is not the only Communist leader to have used it that way. Ingalls sometimes presses her interpretations too far, but the “inner Mao” that she pieces together is coherent and in the end much more credible than the CCP’s official version of Mao.

But if such was the inner Mao, why did he bother with the outerwear of Marxism-Leninism? It did, of course, bring him crucial support from Stalin; but more importantly it places him in the long tradition of rebel movements in Chinese history: a strong leader uses a millenarian ideology to promise heaven-on-earth to suffering people. For the Taipings in the mid-nineteenth century, an odd version of Christianity was the ideology; for the White Lotus before that (and all the way back to the great rebellions of the late Sui), the promise of heaven came from the Maitreya Buddha. Most Chinese rebellions of this kind have preached egalitarianism (brotherhood, “comradeship,” etc.) but in actuality have been secretive, violent and rigidly hierarchical.

U.S. policy-makers need to grasp the fact that this kind of unprincipled strongman culture—not modern government of any kind, or even serious Marxism—lies and always has lain at the core (i.e., the top) of the movement that calls itself “Chinese Communism.” The subculture is an authentic strand in Chinese tradition, but is hardly the best in Chinese tradition and cannot even be called the mainstream. The mainstream, although severely strained in recent decades (some of its most courageous defenders sent to exile, prison, or death) is much more humane and reasonable than the unprincipled strongman culture. The mainstream has outlasted violent interregnums in the past and will likely do so again.

Xi Jinping is a creature of the culture through which he rose to power. He would like to be another Mao (last year, imitating Mao, he published a “heartfelt” poem in classical string-bound form), but he lacks Mao’s intellect. He pushes his programs with a sort of unguarded obtuseness that leaves wounded rivals in its wake, and this happens as he and the country face the new problem of economic slowdown in addition to the perennial ones of social control, Internet control and a deteriorating environment. Xi’s rivals are watching and he is vulnerable. Xi very much needs Obama. Images of a U.S. president welcoming him with pomp would do much to strengthen him against rivals back in China.

So how should our president receive him? If it were up to me, I would say invite him to the White House, but with no pomp. No state dinner or multi-gun salute. Sit down with him and invite him to say what he likes for as long as he likes. Then, independently of the word-game he will have played, list the issues that concern the U.S.: cybersecurity, currency and trade, mass arrest of human rights lawyers, adventurism in the South China Sea, climate change agreements, and whatever else. For each issue, state clearly and concretely what U.S. policy will be a) if things get better and b) if things get worse. Then shake his hand, walk him to the door, and let him go back to China.

Throughout the contact, bear in mind the one piece of common ground that Xi and Obama unequivocally share: neither man is the elected representative of the Chinese people.

One must never forget that China’s is still a communist economy. Effectively all empirical evidence indicates that communist economies configured on classic lines do not work, while attempts somehow to reform them fail. The end of Soviet communism in 1991 allowed a number of countries such as Poland, then Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and others, to install the most up-to-date free enterprise systems, with dramatically positive results. As Russia herself and other states show, communism is not necessarily succeeded by well-thought-out and honestly-executed reforms, as in the countries mentioned. The evidence nevertheless suggests that if the goal of the Chinese leadership is genuine economic development, then the only choice is to abolish communism, distribute collectively-held property in as fair and equitable a way as possible, and allow market-determined prices and interest rates, as well as free conversion of the currency and free trade. Some people think that China is seeking to do this in a gradual manner: hence the constant use of the phrase “reform” when basic reforms have not even been attempted. Certainly many Chinese understand that abolition of communism and the introduction of a constitutional, law-governed free-enterprise system is the only genuine road forward. Ideas of reformed socialism “with Chinese characteristics” are chimerical. Why then does the Party not follow such a course? The answer is that to do so would put the party out of business: instructive comparative reading on this topic may be found in Alfred B. Evans’s Soviet Marxism-Leninism: The Decline of an Ideology (1993). In any case, remember that the purpose of Deng Xiaoping’s economic changes, initiated during his 1992 southern tour, was to save the Party. He thought improvement in economic conditions would stabilize the situation after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. It is true that Deng unleashed a good deal of potential, but nothing of the scale China in fact possesses. This is because his goal was in fact not economic. What he sought above all was a way to secure the Party’s absolute monopoly on political power.

I agree with Perry Link that dialing down the pomp for President Xi’s visit is appropriate. But it’s equally important for President Obama and the White House to find ways—now, in advance of the summit—to dial up its support for independent voices from China.

President Obama has described himself as a community organizer, as a civil rights activist, as a law professor—and it is precisely such people who have borne the brunt of the current Chinese leadership’s profound hostility to human rights, peaceful expression, and the rule of law. Between the end of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in June and the summit in September, the Chinese government has detained virtually all of the country’s 200-plus human rights lawyers, and two dozen remain detained or disappeared. Lest anyone think the government’s ire is reserved for controversial or critical individuals or organizations, this week a journalist from Caijing—a highly-regarded publication—was paraded on state television to “confess” that his reporting on possible stock market interventions had purportedly caused it to crash. Even groups that provide essential social pressure-lessening services, such as the anti-discrimination group Yirenping, have not been lauded but rather eviscerated by Beijing in recent months.

While some might have hoped that this leadership’s hardline posture would fade after its first months in power, action such as these—alongside an ideological turn away from the universality of human rights and a proposed slew of laws that will gut already-restricted liberties—demonstrate the opposite is true.

While the U.S. has expressed concern about these developments in multiple public and private forums with senior Chinese officials, and made global headlines for sheltering blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng in May 2012, the White House has failed to respond proportionately to the alarming deterioration of human rights. It has been reluctant to visibly and consistently align itself with China’s besieged activists, with the exceptions of eventually receiving the Dalai Lama and perfunctorily congratulating imprisoned critic Liu Xiaobo on his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize win.

It’s hard to understand President Obama’s reticence. After all, President Obama’s own “Stand With Civil Society” initiative suggests that such engagement is not only logical but desirable, and can be explained to an irate Chinese leadership as consistent with a global policy. US officials have certainly visibly planted flags of support with critics and opposition movements around the world; one thinks of U.S. ambassador Victoria Nuland visiting protestors in Ukraine’s Maidan Square, for example. And let’s be clear: save for winning a civil war more than six decades ago, the Chinese Communist Party has no clear, or certainly no superior, claim to legitimacy over anyone else from China, including representatives of the human rights community. The CCP has never deigned to stand for election, and despite the “confidence” Chinese officials regularly trumpet, it still cannot bear even mild public criticism.

The White House will receive President Xi. But in advance of that, President Obama and all other senior officials who will participate in the formal summit should devote a day to a comparable summit with representatives of China’s human rights community. There are now individuals in the US who can speak fluently on issues ranging from political and legal reform to women’s rights, and from climate change to national security and countering terrorism. Such a gathering could address a number of issues the summit will focus on, and it should be afforded comparable pomp, including photo ops and a ceremonial dinner.

Will this irk Beijing? Of course. But not enough to make President Xi stay home. Few efforts by this or other US administrations have moved the needle much in pushing Beijing to change its ways on human rights. Giving greater recognition to—and engaging in dialogue with—good faith interlocutors from China might just be a badly-needed change of tactics for all involved.