Big Potential From Obama-Xi Talks

Friday's summit in California could yield more results than usual.

Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping won’t be the first notables to check into the sprawling Sunnylands estate in Southern California in search of seclusion and a chance for private chat. Among others, Queen Elizabeth, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra beat them to it.

But the June 7 and 8 talks between leaders of the United States and China, representing the world’s two largest economies, will be the most substantive ever staged at the “mid-century modern” playground for the rich and famous built by the late billionaire Walter Annenberg. The meeting will bring together two politicians struggling, with varying success, to seize hold of their respective governments and shape policies despite domestic problems that can seem overwhelming. Partly because the summit has been scheduled as a “shirt-sleeves meeting” shorn of diplomatic frills, and partly because both presidents can use a success—President Xi says they are meeting at a “critical juncture” in the relationship—the results could far exceed the usual bland communiqué and provide firmer guidelines for future relations.

The goal is not to negotiate specific agreements about tactical matters but to reach general understandings about how the two governments intend to deal with each other on strategic political, economic and security issues. Some analysts fear they have been, intentionally or not, drifting toward an era of increased tension or even confrontation. The Sunnylands meeting is meant to reset things without getting bogged down in details. As China’s ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, has said, the meeting “will not have a long list of deliverables” but the two sides “have determined they will work together to build a new type of relationship.”

There are early signs that something useful will result though there are no guarantees. The two presidents head political systems that share a mutual distrust, yet also a growing awareness that they need each other for their separate reasons.

As the talks draw near, President Obama’s problems are well known. A dysfunctional Congress that includes House Republicans determined to block almost anything he proposes, scandal at the Internal Revenue Service, apparent assaults on press freedom and an economy that merely limps along would be on anyone’s short list. In addition, there’s not much on the foreign front that brings him credit these days; violence in Syria and across the Mideast dominates the news, causing many Americans to blame him for not doing more to sort it out while others are afraid he’ll try. Something good with China would help him change the subject to his advantage.

Less well understood, at least for Americans, is that President Xi faces even more fundamental problems though not political ones of the democratic sort. As head of a one-party state run by Leninist rules, Xi has no balky parliament or overt rivals to impede him as either general secretary of the Communist Party or the nation’s president. But domestic pressures limit his ability to take daring initiatives, even though they also increase his need to show achievement. Growing public cynicism about Communist Party corruption and other malfeasance gives him a vested interest in trying to create what he calls “a new type of great power relationship” that could bring him great prestige inside China.

Perhaps Xi’s greatest challenge is a growing disaffection between the party and the people, one that leaders fear might eventually put at risk both social stability and their own political control. The more egalitarian aspects of Mao Zedong’s legacy were jettisoned long ago—the chairman’s own granddaughter is one of the richest women in China—and the ruling system is riddled with corruption, cronyism and nepotism. High-handed officials who enrich themselves in office dominate party structures from top to bottom, often in collusion with friends and relatives who control state-owned or private businesses. For example, they too often seize homes or farmland for commercial development with little or no compensation for those they displace, let construction companies shortchange transient workers, or award lucrative contracts to allies in return for kickbacks. This helps produce perhaps two hundred thousand of what the state calls “mass incidents” each year—local protests often squelched by thugs, either in or out of police uniform.

Late last month, Control Risks, a consulting firm, told business travelers to be extra careful when visiting Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China. Residents of one suburb clashed with police over government plans to demolish their homes, alleging they were offered inadequate compensation due to collusion between officials and developers. “Avoid all demonstrations to mitigate the incidental risk of exposure to violence,” Control Risks warned its clients. It said a similar case in Guizhou province three weeks earlier brought a tear gas response and the arrest of several protesters who had overturned police cars and blocked roads.

The general public, broadly aware of all this thanks to social media and the Internet, is increasingly upset. Citizens have no effective political channel for seeking redress—determined protesters can wind up in labor camps or illegal “black jails” without trial—but the regime is well aware of the potential danger; President Xi and others have warned public disaffection may erode the party’s political authority, just as it has already undermined moral authority. The fact that many Chinese, for good reason, consider the air, water and food to be unsafe adds to the sour mood.