Chinese commentators often hail Sino-U.S. economic ties as the “bedrock” of the broader relationship. The bedrock, however, has begun to fissure. That the Chinese president is devoting so much of his visit to outreach to the business community likely reflects that Beijing is feeling the tremors.
The opening salvo of Xi’s commercial charm offensive was a Q & A with The Wall Street Journal, which has been blocked in China but is a prime channel to America’s business elite. His first stop was in Seattle, in a state that Xi pointed out “leads U.S. states in exports to China,” he devoted the front of his speech to assuring the audience of the strength of China’s economy, the soundness of its currency policy, its commitment to economic reform, and the promise to keep the door open to foreign investors.
The rest of his itinerary was packed with meet-and-greet with a who’s who of American chief executives.
American businesses, lured by China’s cheap labor, huge market and spectacular growth spurt, have arguably been Beijing’s most influential advocates in Washington, offsetting concerns about domestic and foreign policies. But American executives are becoming increasingly unsettled as Beijing’s treatment of foreign companies has turned more nationalist and protectionist despite its language of commitment to openness.
Beijing may hope that Xi can single-handedly revive American businesses’ enthusiasm in China; dull Washington’s criticism on thornier issues such as human rights and the South China Sea; and re-anchor the bilateral ties. Retaining business confidence, however, requires Xi to demonstrate his willingness to loosen control and share power with market forces. His speeches say one thing, but his policies so far imply the opposite.