What does Xi Jinping really want for the decade he will be president of China? It is hard to know at this early stage and risky to assume too much. High hopes that his predecessor, Hu Jintao, would be a reformer turned out to be wrong. But a few recent events, including the California summit with President Barack Obama, suggest that Xi is attentive to the world beyond his borders, even as repression continues inside China.
The two presidents talked at some length Friday evening about North Korea’s drive to expand its nuclear weapons stockpile; China, a major economic patron of the Pyongyang regime, remains critical to its opaque decision-making. National security adviser Thomas Donilon said Xi agreed with Obama that pressure must be kept on North Korea to denuclearize, and that both leaders found “quite a bit of alignment on the Korean issue.” After a bout of aggressive and threatening behavior this year, North Korea has been sending more conciliatory signals lately, including an agreement with South Korea to hold high-level talks on economic and humanitarian topics. North Korea has been extremely erratic for years, zooming from confrontation to conciliation and back again, but a genuine effort by Beijing could prove a useful bulwark against further expansion of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Obama presented the Chinese leader with a detailed complaint about Chinese economic espionage against targets in the United States, which was essential and overdue. It remains to be seen how China will react over the long term to Obama’s push for establishing norms and confidence-building measures in cyberspace. Certainly, it is good news that both countries are talking about it. Another glimmer of hope came late last week at the United Nations, where a 15-nation group of government experts, including from China and the United States, agreed on a report that embraced the idea of international law governing state behavior when it comes to cyberconflict. The significance is that China must take responsibility, at least in theory, for attacks emanating from its territory.
According to Donilon, the president also brought up China’s human rights violations, a vital part of any discussion with the leadership. We were heartened last week when the mother and older brother of dissident Chen Guangcheng, who fled to the United States last year, were granted Chinese passports. But repression of dissent in China remains broad and unforgiving. Over the weekend, a Chinese court sentenced a brother-in-law of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison on what relatives said were trumped-up charges. Liu is also serving 11 years on charges stemming from his championing of Charter 08, an online petition calling on China to adopt democracy.
China has long resisted outside criticism of its sorry record of punishing those who speak their minds. It is revealing that its leaders can project confidence across the table from a U.S. president but are threatened by the words of their own citizens.