On November 10, U.S. President Donald Trump ended his first state visit to China. On the second day of his visit, he had formal bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, after which they met with a U.S. business delegation, where they witnessed the signing of 15 business deals between China and U.S. companies.
A total of 37 major deals were signed between U.S. and Chinese companies during Trump’s visit to China worth more than US$250 billion. This includes the preliminary agreement between China and the United States to build a liquefied natural gas pipeline and facilities in Alaska. According to the Alaska state government, this will be a US$43 billion project.
Other deals include a US$37 billion commitment to purchase aircraft from Boeing, a non-committal agreement to purchase server chips from Qualcomm worth US$12 billion, and the purchase of aircraft engines and turbines from General Electric worth US$35 billion.
A win-win deal
Following the signing ceremony with the business leaders, Xi said:
“This is a win-win example of Chinese-U.S. cooperation that will encourage more investment into the United States. At the same time, both parties will work hard toward closing the gap in the trade imbalance between China and the United States.”
Trump said that the past U.S. administrations had allowed China to gain an advantage over the United States, resulting in the unfair trade. According to the data released on November 8, China’s trade surplus over the United States was close to US$27 billion in October.
Looking forward to continued cooperation, Trump said:
“We are working together to solve not only our problem, but also the world’s problems, including security, and believe that we can solve almost all the problems and maybe even all the problems.”
However, it was Trump’s friendly and accommodating attitude toward Xi that took many China observers by surprise.
Trump was feted with everything from an extravagant red carpet welcome with children waving U.S. and Chinese flags to a military parade and 21-gun salute and unprecedented private dinner complete with an opera performance in the Forbidden City.
In response, Trump called Xi “a very special man” with whom he has “great chemistry”. He congratulated Xi on the recent Communist Party Congress, which gave new authority to the Chinese leader. However, it was during a joint appearance with Xi that Trump elicited nervous laughter from the audience of Chinese and American business leaders when he said:
“I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
This comes after Trump made harsh criticisms of China’s trade practices, which he compared to rape and theft, a centerpiece of his campaign for U.S. president. But since meeting Xi in April, he has flip-flopped and become a fan.
In an interview with Fox Business Network in the days leading up to his visit to China, Trump said:
“He’s a powerful man. I happen to think he’s a very good person. Now with that being said, he represents China, I represent the USA, so, you know, there’s going to always be conflict. But we have a very good relationship. People say we have the best relationship of any president-president, because he’s called president also.
Now some people might call him the king of China. But he’s called president. But we have a very good relationship and that’s a positive thing. And it would be good to have that relationship with Russia and other countries, too.”
Dr. Frank Tian Xie, a professor of the University of South Carolina Aiken, School of Business Administration, said that apart from looking at the huge trade orders, it seems that Xi Jinping is different from all the previous leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the sense that he did not exercise China’s past hostile policy toward the United States. Economically, there is more cooperation and China has softened their political stand toward the United States:
“I think this may be the result of the communication approach between both of them. Xi has been flexible and more liberal from the communist political structure and system. I think this must be the reason.”
Or playing into their hands?
The CCP’s top aides are masterful at making diplomats and foreign businessmen feel special. Trump may be particularly susceptible to Beijing’s tactic of flattering foreigners with an over-the-top ceremony but refusing to change their position when when it comes time to negotiate actual change.
Behind closed doors, American officials insisted that President Trump forcefully confronted Xi about the chronic trade imbalances between the two countries. He also pressed China to take tougher measures toward North Korea, including a complete suspension of oil shipments.
In neither case did the Chinese make significant concessions, nor did Trump express dissatisfaction with their response.
Silence on human rights
Xi Jinping remains an authoritarian leader who has brutally cracked down on political opposition and on citizens who question his policies, while attacking U.S. interests. Past U.S. presidents, both Democrat and Republican, have taken advantage of state visits to urge the CCP to stop stifling religious and political freedom. But Trump said nothing about human rights in public beyond a general commitment to individual rights and the rule of law.
There was no mention of the condition of Liu Xia, the widow of deceased Nobel Peace laureate and dissident Liu Xiaobo, at a joint press conference between the two leaders, even though more than 50 authors, including Philip Roth and Margaret Atwood, had urged the U.S. leader to seek the release of Liu Xia.
Nor was there any call to end the 18-year-long persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China, and bring the former communist dictator Jiang Zemin, who launched and personally directed the persecution, to justice.
Journalists were also prevented from asking questions during the press conference, a sign also of Xi’s tightened grip over the country and the erosion of media freedoms.
Trump’s predecessors had traditionally spoken at local universities during visits to China, but his own itinerary did not include such events, nor others that would allow him to engage with the Chinese public.
The cost for dissidents and practitioners
Dr. Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch and author of numerous articles on Chinese political reform, democratization, and human rights, commented:
“The fact that Trump didn’t mention human rights is only half of the problem. The other half of the problem is this grotesque adulation of Xi Jinping and the total failure to acknowledge that this is an authoritarian regime.”
After Trump’s praise for the military band-accompanied walk in front of the Great Hall of the People, Richardson said:
“Trump’s trip just gave bureaucrats in China’s Communist Party every piece of ammunition they need to withstand or dismiss any criticism that might come their way on human rights issues.”
Trump and his supporters in the media will say he won the China game and point to his agenda of isolating North Korea and new trade deals as evidence.
Nevertheless, Trump’s remarkable show of deference to Xi laid bare the lengths to which he is prioritizing his “great chemistry” over the lives of political dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners in China.
Translations by Chau BC.