Chinese parents love to tell their children the story of the weasel and the hen. The story goes like this: on New Year’s Day, the weasel was hungry and decided to trick the hen by offering a New Year’s gift, all the while planning to gobble it up. How the parents convey the sad ending for the hen depends on how old the kids are, but the moral of the story is clear: be alert and don’t trust anyone before you know their true intentions.
This story could be told to President Obama as he prepares to spend some quality time in Washington with China’s Vice-president Xi Jinping, who will take over the position of General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this fall, and the presidency from Hu Jintao next year. He plans to introduce himself to American audiences as an open-minded and untraditional Communist leader. He has even scheduled a trip to revisit Muscatine, Iowa, where he led a delegation to study hog-raising in 1985 when he was a low-level official in Hebei Province.
Xi’s visit may give some in Washington high expectations for smoother U.S.-Chinese relations during his tenure; but that will be just an illusion.
Although Mr. Xi is considered one of China’s “princelings,” children of China’s wealthy Communist elite, his history is somewhat more complicated. His father, a Communist party veteran, was purged by Mao Zedong in the early 1960s. The family suffered greatly during this time, and Xi was sent to China’s remote Western region to do hard labor. After Xi’s father was restored to his party position following Mao’s death, he was one of the few open-minded Communists who firmly supported economic and political reform and tried to steer the CCP in a more liberal direction.
Because of this unique background, there is an ongoing debate in the online communityboth inside and outside Chinaabout who Xi really is. Is he more like his father, or is he a figurehead selected by other princelings to guard the interests of this elite group?
No doubt, the persecution of Xi’s father and his own painful experience under the political system that he will soon lead has had a profound impact on him at a personal level. But there seems to be little doubt that money and power have changed Xi, and that he is part of the ruling elite that put him in the position where he is now. This means he is no different from his predecessors with whom the United States has been trying to establish close relations since President Nixon opened the door to China in the 1970s.
History instructs us to be wary of Chinese visitors. For example, in 1997 President Clinton received Jiang Zemin, the third generation of China’s ruler, who famously recited Lincoln‘s Gettysburg address and also sang Love Me Tender and Swanee River in the White House. However, soon after Jiang’s visit here, he launched a particularly cruel crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners, opening the Pandora’s box of using torture as a systematic tool for repression throughout China. In 2011 President Obama also gave Hu Jintao the royal treatment at the White House, but as soon as Hu returned to China, he ordered a crackdown, no less ruthless than his predecessor, on human rights defenders and democratic activists, out of fear that the Arab Spring would spread throughout China. Many dissidents were tortured and given heavy prison terms. Among them, Yu Jie, a well-known writer, just recently was able to relate his horror story of torture under Jiang’s rule when Yu fled China and arrived in the United States.
Clearly China’s leaders are difficult to understand, much less influence. This is because they don’t represent themselves or the will of the Chinese people; they represent the autocratic interest of the Communist Party. What they do and say is decided in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The forty-year-old U.S. policy of engagement has not worked as expected because American policymakers fail to see China’s real intention hiding in layers of deceptive rhetoric and maneuvers.
Will Xi be any different? He is much savvier at international diplomacy and public relations than he once was. He knows exactly how to engage America’s political and business leaders and court an American audience, as a part of larger scheme of building up China’s “soft power.” Xi’s trip to Iowa is evidently designed to do just that, projecting an image not of a Communist dictator, but a caring leader of a modern nation who cherishes his friendship with Americans, in the hopes of garnering some American goodwill.
Underneath the veneer of public relations, the real intention of Xi’s visit to the United States is to stop, if at all possible, America’s strategic return to Asia. If he cannot stop it, he must at minimum secure its sphere of influence so that the move does not affect China’s core interests. America’s presence may make it harder for China to use force against Taiwan, or against its neighboring countries over territorial disputes. Xi’s leverage points with the United States include North Korea, Iran, and South China Seas.
The ultimate strategic goal of China’s leaders is to be the dominant superpower in the world in order to glorify the Middle Kingdom, an absurdly out-of-date Chinese dream that China’s Communist leaders still cling to. China’s deep hatred toward being labeled as the “Sick Man of Asia” in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century incited the Chinese revolutions, including the Communist revolution. The Chinese attribute China’s long-time decline as a world power to imperialist bullying and exploitation.
The best revenge, in China’s psyche, would be to become the number one superpower in the world. However, China is not presently able to do this, so they must hide their intentions. The possible threat of confronting America, of course, is a bluff. For China, the survival of the Communist regime is of upmost importance at this momentit is the regime’s core interest. China fears that America’s increased presence in Asia will enhance the democratic values in the region.
President Obama must realize that China has few bargaining chips on the table. China cannot control North Korea or Iran, nor can it make real trouble in the South China Seas. The North Korean dictator hates China more than he hates America, according to a very high-level defector from that country; Iran does not trust China either: not a single top Chinese leader has ever visited that country. Unilateral action can be taken against either of these two rogue countries, if need be, without China’s support. Showing its military muscle in South China Seas can only drive the neighboring countries to unite and side with America, not a good choice for China.
Many experts in the United States believe that China is not the Soviet Union and should not be treated as an enemy. They forget that China’s foreign policy has followed Deng Xiaoping’s 24-Character instructions, which he prescribed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and which can be roughly translated as follows: keep cool-headed to observe, be composed to make reactions, stand firmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, never try to take the lead, and wait for the right opportunity to act.
Although China has refrained from openly labeling America as its enemy and often stresses the importance of a strategic partnership with the United States, its internal publications and speeches have always pointed to America as Enemy Number One. For example, many People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers make remarks directly and indirectly naming America as the hostile country.
In 1995, General Xiong Guangkai, Deputy Chief of Staff of PLA, told American diplomat Chas Freeman that the United States should worry more about Los Angeles, not Taiwan, because China now has the capability to launch a nuclear strike. Xiong is currently serving as the head of the China Strategic Institute.
Real progress in the U.S.-Chinese strategic relationship depends on China’s political reform and democratization, which will lead to a peaceful rise of a strong China. America’s return to Asia should aim to ensure the region’s peace and stability, prevent China’s militarization, and aggression, and promote universal values to which the United States has always been committed. President Obama should take advantage of this opportunity to unequivocally be transparent with Xi about these core American interests.