China's Xi spars with lawmakers, avoids specifics in speech

Xi-jinping
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- After getting an earful from U.S. lawmakers on his country's human rights record Wednesday morning, the official expected to be China's future leader faced a friendlier audience at a business-sponsored luncheon in Washington in which he sought to establish a personal connection with Americans.

But though the appearance was billed as the major policy speech of Vice President Xi Jinping’s first official U.S. visit, he offered few specifics and no new insights on China’s positions.

Xi told the audience stories of his Iowa visit 27 years ago and of how he helped the widow of a California physics professor fulfill a dream of visiting a Chinese town where he had lived as a boy at the turn of the last century.

The anecdote of the widow of the late Milton Gardner took up a good part of a 20-minute speech in which Xi emphasized the need for the U.S. and China to build mutual understanding and cooperation.

Xi, 58, repeated Beijing’s long insistence that the U.S. respect China’s one-country policy involving the island of Taiwan and to oppose any independent movement in Tibet, a region in western China where Beijing has been criticized severely for political repression.

And to drive home the point the U.S. isn’t doing enough to respect such “core interests,” Xi borrowed a line from George Washington that “action, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends.”

More broadly on human rights, Xi said the two sides should respect each other’s different “development paths” while adhering to human rights.

Earlier in the day, Xi got a taste of the political skills he will need to deal with American lawmakers, who have traditionally been much more direct and forceful than any given administration about China’s human rights and its treatment of political and religious dissidents.

Xi held a private meeting with nearly a dozen influential senators, both Republicans and Democrats, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who described himself as “the skunk at the garden party” and questioned the Chinese leader about human rights.

“I said that we admire all their progress, we admire their economy -- unfortunately we still have Buddhist monks, Tibetans, burning themselves to death, Nobel prize-winners under house arrest,” McCain said, recounting the closed session. “And I said I do not understand why you continue to prop up North Korea, which is a threat to the security of the world, and I want to know why you vetoed the resolution on Syria at the U.N. Security Council.”

“His answer was, ‘Senator McCain, your candor is well known in China.’” The response drew laughs around the room, those present said, from both the Chinese and U.S. officials.

Among the approximately 600 in the audience at Xi's later lunchtime speech was Dominic Ng, chairman and chief executive of East West Bancorp in Pasadena, who said the story of the Gardner couple gave a glimpse of how Xi might try to cast future relations.

“Clearly he gives an impression of a leader with a lot more personal touch, which is in contrast to [current President Hu Jintao], who is much more conservative in his demeanor,” said Ng, who is chairman of the Chinese American organization Committee of 100, one of the hosts of the event.

What Ng and other business leaders didn’t hear from Xi were specifics about how China would address some deep American concerns about its economic and trade practices, including accusations of theft of intellectual property and illegal government subsidies.

Xi barely mentioned the issue of China’s long-criticized currency exchange rate policy. Nor did he talk about China’s huge trade surplus with the United States or the complaints from American companies that the Chinese have increasingly set up barriers and rules to advance Chinese firms and technologies at the expense of foreign companies.

[Updated, 9:05 a.m. Feb. 16: John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, a co-organizer of the event, said it was understandable that Xi offered few specifics and no new insights on China's positions, given that he is not expected to take leadership until late this year.]

After the speech, Xi left immediately for Iowa, where he is scheduled to stop in the town he visited 27 years ago and also tour a farm near Des Moines. Farm goods are one area where the U.S. is running a large trade surplus with China.

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-- Don Lee. Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

Photo: Vice President Xi Jinping of China speaks during a luncheon of the U.S.-China Business Council in Washington on Wednesday. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

 
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