It was exciting for me to attend the luncheon in honor of Xi Jinping in Washington on Wednesday. It was an opportunity to meet impressive people and reconnect with old friends. Carolyn Brehm, for example, whom I had met in China in the late seventies as a trail-blazing China expert at the US-China Business council, was now hosting a table at the luncheon as VP Global Government Relations at Procter & Gamble. Impressive. In fact, I had never seen so many old China hands present in one venue. Hank Greenberg was among the business participants, as were prominent members of the department of commerce and veterans of China businesses ranging from food and consumer goods companies (such as Coca Cola, Pepsico, Procter & Gamble, Estee Lauder etc.), large industrial groups like Caterpillar, Ford, GM and GE; law firms and the financial giants. Over 600 people attended and security was tight. Everyone had to wear nametags which were only provided against a printed invitation and proof of identity. Seated among us, were members of Xi Jinping’s large (c.200) delegation. John Huntsman, notably, was there too.
Altogether a very interesting mix of people.
At the center back of the large room, was the head table, cordoned off, surrounded by security guards and seating more than 40 of the leading participants. Xi Jinping in the middle, was seated next to Carla Hills on one side and Secretary John Bryson on the other.
The whole event was historical for me. Xi’s visit brought back memories of 27 years ago, in 1985, when I met in Shijiazhuang governor Zhang Shuguan of Hebei province. When he took a delegation to Iowa on a sister relationship visit that year, he also visited New York and I had the pleasure of hosting a lunch for him there. I recall we chatted about his impressions of America – and his appreciation for the Chinese food in New York. That fact that a junior cadre by the name of Xi Jinping was part of his delegation was never mentioned.
In this election year for both China and the USA, one cannot help but contrast the solid predictability of Xi Jinping’s future role with the uncertainty of who will be the next President of the USA in January 2013. The two most important countries of our age are run by different sets of rules, each stemming from their unique and special backgrounds – and they have to get along.
Xi Jinping presented himself with great aplomb and spoke very well at the luncheon. Confident, amiable, articulate, he delivered a well crafted message of friendship and optimism interlaced with steely resolve about China’s sovereign independence. His speech was broadcasted in China by CCTV.
The historical context of this meeting was provided to me by the timely publication last year of a book written by another important participant in the luncheon: Henry Kissinger. “On China” is one of the most intelligent and penetrating analyses of the complexities of US-China relations I have read, and it was a great pleasure to meet Dr. Kissinger at the luncheon and congratulate him on this achievement.
To paraphrase Dr. Kissinger, the United States and China perceive that they need each other because both are too large to be dominated, too special to be transformed, and too necessary to each other to be able to afford isolation. As I was leaving the luncheon, it occurred to me that Xi Jinping is heralding a new chapter in the history of China, and this USA trip will be remembered as a milestone in his ascent.