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Can the New U.S. Ambassador to China See Xi Jinping for Who He Really Is?

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds confirmation hearings on Terry Branstad’s nomination to be Ambassador to China, the Iowa Governor is sure to be asked about the positions of the president who nominated him. I hope, though, that Branstad also has to answer for things he has said about another of his strongman friends: Xi Jinping.

Late in 2012, just as Xi became head of China’s Communist Party, Branstad told Chinese state television that Xi was a “progressive” working to “open” China. The two men first met in 1985 when Xi, then an agricultural official, visited Iowa. In March 2013, in a written response to questions the Xinhua News Service sent to him when Xi added President to his list of titles, Branstad described his old friend as a “thoughtful” leader whose ascent could help U.S.-China relations. What’s happened since 2013 might make him want to reconsider these comments.

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U.S.-China relations now stand at a worrisome juncture. This largely stems from positions Donald Trump and members of his administration have taken on Taiwan, trade, North Korea, and the South China Sea. But Xi’s own actions, long before the election, add to the situation’s combustibility. Xi has embraced a muscular my-country-first brand of nationalism not unlike Trump’s in form—if diametrically opposed in substance on issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea. Xi’s hard-line nationalism generally plays well on the mainland, but even before Trump became President it inflamed China’s relations with other countries, including the U.S.

On the domestic front, rather than proving himself a “progressive,” Xi has clamped down even harder on civil society, protesters, and the press, for instance, than did his predecessor Hu Jintao—and Hu was no liberalizer.

Has Xi been working to “open” China? He has made promising moves in some areas, such as supporting global climate change accords. But his recent praise of openness at the World Economic Forum notwithstanding, he has worked to limit the flow into China of “dangerous” Western ideas. And he has taken a hard line on Hong Kong, a city far more truly open than any other mainland metropolis. He would like, it seems, to see Hong Kong become just like other urban centers in the People’s Republic.

(AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (right) meets with Chinese President Mao Zedong in Beijing, November 24, 1973.

If Branstad has not lost faith in Xi, in spite of this, we should not be surprised. I say this not because his unflagging support for Trump suggests he doesn’t mind autocratic tendencies but because history abounds with examples of Americans who expect great things from a Chinese strongman and then find it hard to relinquish them when the leader makes dictatorial moves.

In the 1930s, the prolific New Yorker staff writer Emily Hahn became chummy with Song Meiling, the wife of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and wrote positive things about her friend’s strongman husband. She continued to do so long after the militaristic Chiang was criticized widely for his intolerance of dissent and censorship of the press.

Edgar Snow, a contemporary of Hahn’s who got to know Mao Zedong in 1936, followed a similar pattern vis-à-vis Chiang’s great rival. Snow’s career-making 1937 book, Red Star Over China, included a positive portrait of Mao, who was then in charge of just a small base area. He kept writing good things about Mao even after the strongman was running a massive nation and carrying out brutal purges and mass campaigns, such as the Great Leap Forward, that caused enormous suffering.

(Wikimedia Commons)
Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, and Edgar Snow, October 1960.

If Branstad still sees Xi as the kind of leader China needs, we don’t have to switch from diplomacy to journalism or go back to Hahn and Snow’s era to find a precedent. A 1989 Henry Kissinger op-ed defending Deng Xiaoping will do.

Writing for the Washington Post less than two months after the June 4th Massacre, Kissinger insisted that those saying Deng had proved himself a “tyrant” by turning troops against unarmed civilians were being unfair. The crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests did, he admitted, take a “shocking” form, but it was “inevitable” that Beijing would use force to quell demonstrations in the capital’s heart. As for Deng, he had been interacting with him for many years, Kissinger insisted, and saw him as a “reformer and a good friend of the United States.”

When Trump announced that he wanted Branstad to represent him in China, a spokesman in Beijing said the Iowan’s reputation as an “old friend of the Chinese people” made this welcome news. It seems reasonable to expect he’ll be a voice within the Trump camp pushing for a conciliatory approach toward China. This is logical, but history suggests we keep in mind that doing well by China’s leaders and by “the Chinese people” are sometimes very different things. When Snow contributed to the cover-up of the Great Leap Famine, whether intentionally or inadvertently, and when Kissinger offered excuses for 1989’s massacre, they acted not as the “old friends of the Chinese people”—though they, too, were called that—but as apologists for a particular strongman. Branstad could well work to get Washington to go easy on his “old friend” Xi, yet given this strongman’s recent track record, the beneficiary of the Iowan’s efforts would not be the “Chinese people” to whom he is allegedly an “old friend,” but just one unusually powerful member of that massive and diverse group.

Correction: Wasserstrom argues that Branstad could urge Washington to “go easy” on Xi. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said Branstad could work to get “Beijing” to go easy on Xi.