The stakes were high for U.S. President Barack Obama’s sit-down with his new Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, on Friday. The landmark two-day meeting, held at Sunnylands, a private estate in Southern California, is the first between the two heads of state since Xi took office in March. Cybersecurity, North Korea and territorial disputes are among the topics warranting attention — yet it seems interest in the summit is lacking in the Middle Kingdom.
Xi might be filling up column inches in the Western press with his adopted catchphrase “China dream,” but comments about his arrival in the Golden State barely made waves on China’s Twitter-like social-media service Sina Weibo. The bulk of Friday’s traffic focused on the annual university-entrance exams that are currently under way. Not even the Economist’s deliberately provocative Brokeback Mountain cover, featuring Xi and Obama, caused much of a stir.
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Pictures of the scenic former Annenberg estate fared slightly better, with pollution-wary Chinese netizens praising the beauty of its gardens. When people did comment on the summit itself, it was largely to admonish First Lady Michelle Obama for not attending. “Everyone has family business. But when special guests are visiting, the head of the household should not miss it,” read one post on the forum of state-run newspaper the People’s Daily. By contrast, Xi’s wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, was at his side when their plane touched down at Ontario International Airport in California on Thursday.
Professor Di Dongsheng, vice director at Beijing’s Renmin Center for China’s Foreign Strategy Studies, tells TIME that the Chinese public is in fact “warm and optimistic” about the meeting. “This time, we have a new leader who is more confident, mature and natural than his predecessors,” he explains, adding that ordinary people hope to stem the negativity that has developed over recent years.
Chinese media have also praised the confab; an editorial in the Global Times proclaims that this “milestone” meeting offers a “glimpse of what China’s future might look like when it catches up with the U.S.” The newspaper, which is backed by the ruling party, also asserts that the West is growing more accustomed to China’s new standing and no longer considers Beijing policies “dreadful” — perhaps betraying some residual bitterness at perceived affronts from the past.
Of course, petty jibing against the U.S. is part and parcel of the state-controlled press, and a recent articles published under the banner Dishonest Americans in the People’s Daily are not atypical. The series claims to “provide a more objective picture of what the U.S. and Americans are really like” and includes accounts of innocent Chinese being fleeced in the U.S. Much of this divisive fodder seems to have been stopped — or at least postponed — in the run-up to Xi’s Americas sojourn, which has also included visits to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico.
State news agency Xinhua used a news-analysis piece to hammer home that Beijing “has spared no effort to repeatedly assure other countries that it is in pursuit of peace and development” — a statement likely to raise eyebrows in India, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines (among others). Obama will be hoping for actions to match these irenic sentiments and may use the meeting to urge for the release of 16 high-profile prisoners, including jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
It won’t be easy to soothe this long-standing climate of mistrust. A new Pew Research Center poll indicates American attitudes toward China have turned sharply negative over the past two years. Researchers found 52% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of China, while just 37% express a favorable view — a complete reversal of the situation in 2011. And the majority of Chinese surveyed have a similarly disparaging opinion of Americans. If Xi is truly hoping to repair Sino-U.S. relations, his trip could not have come at a better time.
— With reporting by Jennifer Cheng / Hong Kong and Gu Yongqiang / Beijing
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