Axios China

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November 15, 2023

Welcome back to Axios China. Today's newsletter is all about President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping's highly anticipated meeting later today at APEC in San Francisco.

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Today's newsletter is 1,763 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: Chinese state media turns on the charm ahead of Biden-Xi meeting

Illustration of charm bracelet with the Chinese star and American flag as diamond encrusted charms.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Chinese state media is highlighting the history of U.S.-China people-to-people ties and Chinese leader Xi Jinping's own positive experiences in the U.S. ahead of his meeting with President Biden this week.

Why it matters: It's the first time since Biden became president that Chinese state media has launched a sweeping pro-U.S. messaging campaign. The propaganda push, aimed at charming both domestic and U.S. audiences, signals Beijing may be serious about getting the U.S.-China relationship on more stable footing.

  • It's a dramatic about-face from the steady drumbeat of state media headlines in years casting the U.S. as a dangerous hegemon trying to contain China.
  • Warmer people-to-people ties can have a tempering effect on any extreme swings in state-to-state ties and can help foster business and trade between local areas.
  • Beijing has an uphill battle: New polling data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found 58% of American respondents view China's rise as the greatest threat to U.S. interests — the highest level recorded since the survey began in 1990.

What's happening: Xi wrote a letter to a 103-year-old U.S. World War II veteran who was a member of the Flying Tigers, a group of fighter squadrons formed to help China defeat the invading Japanese army, Chinese state news service Xinhua reported.

  • "In the past, our two peoples fought the Japanese fascists together, and forged a deep friendship that withstood the test of blood and fire," Xi's letter stated.
  • A group of Flying Tigers veterans and their families flew to China in late October in a delegation, visiting sites where the Chinese and American militaries had worked together to fight the Japanese army.

Between the lines: Chinese leaders have previously highlighted the struggle shared between the U.S. and China against the Japanese army as a way to appeal to a sense of historical U.S.-Chinese solidarity.

  • "At times when China's current leadership is looking for common ground and shared history, this is one of the totems they go to," Katie Stallard, author of "Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea," told Axios.
  • "It's regular Americans and regular Chinese fighting alongside each other."

Details: Chinese state media is lauding numerous other highlights in U.S.-China people-to-people ties as well.

  • Last week, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed in Beijing to mark the 50th anniversary of its first visit to China in 1973, and Xi wrote a letter to the orchestra's president thanking the group for its role in fostering warm U.S.-China ties, the People's Daily reported. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson also praised the orchestra in a press briefing.

Xinhua wrote about Xi's visit to Muscatine, Iowa, back in 1985, when he stayed with a host family — a visit that state media also lauded in 2012 as Xi assumed power and which some U.S. observers took at the time to be a sign that China's new leader wanted to foster warm relations with the U.S.

  • Xi invited his "old friends" from Iowa to a dinner on the sidelines of APEC.
  • What they're saying: "This has been a heck of a journey — we can't figure it out. We don't even know why he likes us!" Sarah Lande, who first met Xi in Muscatine in 1985 and has helped maintain the city's ties to Xi over the years, told Bloomberg.

What to watch: The tone of Chinese domestic propaganda efforts can provide early signals about the Chinese Communist Party's policy shifts, Weifeng Zhong, an analyst at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told my Axios colleague Matt Phillips.

  • "If you want to reengage with the U.S., you need to change the public opinion, yet again, to explain why America or the American people are suddenly good people again," he said.

2. What to expect from the Biden-Xi meeting

Xi Jinping arrives at San Francisco International Airport on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, California, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. Photo credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Xi arrives at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration has publicly sought to temper expectations for the four-hour meeting, but announcements on fentanyl, military communications and other key issues are expected, according to news reports.

The big picture: Biden told reporters on Tuesday that his goals are to "get back on a normal course, corresponding and being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another in a crisis, and being able to make sure that our militaries still have contact with one another," Reuters reports.

Details: Biden and Xi are expected to announce a deal that would see Chinese authorities crack down on the chemical companies that produce the deadly opioid fentanyl, Bloomberg reports.

  • The two sides are preparing to announce the resumption of military-to-military communications, Axios reported last week.
  • Beijing is hoping for expanded dialogue related to artificial intelligence, the Financial Times reports — perhaps with the goal of preventing additional U.S. restrictions.
  • Taiwan will likely be a major topic of discussion, though no new assurances from either side are expected.

Yes, but: No joint statement is expected, as the differences between the two leaders remain great, the Financial Times reports.

What's at stake: "With Taiwan's looming presidential election and public confrontation flaring between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea, the near-term risk of tensions between Washington and Beijing escalating over both issues is high," said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group.

  • "The Xi-Biden meeting provides an important opportunity for the two leaders to convey to each other that neither seeks to overturn the status quo" and that neither side seeks military conflict, said Hsiao.

3. Catch up quick

1. The U.S. granted visas to hundreds of Chinese journalists to cover APEC, in a sign of warming ties, Bloomberg reports.

2. Protesters clashed as they gathered at the San Francisco airport to await Xi's arrival, local news station KTVU reports.

  • The Chinese government is adept at quietly helping to organize pro-Beijing counterprotests when Chinese leaders visit foreign countries. Documented examples include Xi's visits to Washington, D.C., in 2012 and 2015.
  • When the Olympic torch passed through San Francisco ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, China sent undercover Ministry of State Security agents to the site of the demonstrations to help direct counterprotesters to drown out pro-Tibet protesters. Clashes between protesters were serious enough that the relay was rerouted.

3. Taiwanese reporters were harassed outside the San Francisco hotel where Xi is staying during his visit and a man tried to stop them from filming, Focus Taiwan reports.

4. Taiwan's two main opposition parties, the KMT and the TPP, have agreed to form a coalition ahead of January's presidential election, giving them a better chance at defeating the ruling DPP's candidate William Lai, who is currently leading in the polls, the Taipei Times reports.

5. Chinese surveillance technology giant Hikvision won a contract to build a "Smart Campus" project for a university in Fujian Province that allegedly includes "alerts" sent to administrators about ethnic minority students "suspected of Ramadan fasting behavior," IPVM reports.

  • The project was completed in December 2022. The tender for the project included the fasting alert as a requirement. Hikvision denied it included that feature, citing human rights concerns.

4. How China's economic slowdown factors into the Biden-Xi meeting

Photo illustration of President Biden and President Xi Jinping walking towards each other with Jinping casting a shadow of the yuan symbol

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Al Drago, Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

China's economic struggles add an unpredictable element to the meeting between Biden and Xi, Axios' Matt Phillips writes.

Why it matters: There's not much transparency into the decision-making process of China's ruling Communist Party, so little is known about how top officials are reacting to domestic economic difficulties.

Context: China's economy is arguably facing its biggest challenge in decades.

  • Growth is slow, youth unemployment is high and deflation is setting in.
  • The housing sector, a cornerstone of the domestic economy, is heavily indebted, financially wobbly — and a money pit for the government.
  • Foreign capital is fleeing the country, in what amounts to a vote of no-confidence in the leadership's ability to get things back on track.

The big question: Will these issues refocus China's leadership on jump-starting the economy — implying a more amenable posture toward key trading partners and geopolitical adversaries like the U.S.?

  • Or will the dismal outlook at home mean a ratcheting up of nationalism, a key pillar of Xi's increasingly authoritarian China?

What they're saying: Economic struggles could "pull back some of their political ambitions," says Matthew Goodman, director of the Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I think that's possible."

  • "But it's also possible that it could do the opposite and it could stoke some of their nationalist objectives," he adds.

Meanwhile: Analysts say it's important that the U.S. doesn't look like it's trying to take advantage of temporary economic weakness in China, which would feed into the narrative that the West is trying to hamstring Chinese economic power.

  • "From a U.S. perspective, the key here is really stressing that all this internal turmoil within the Chinese economy is self-driven," says Niels Graham, associate director for the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center.
  • "These are domestic decisions at the end of the day that have driven the Chinese economy to the point it is. The last thing the U.S. should do right now is really put itself out as a scapegoat," he says.

5. What I'm reading

Slow-walking IPEF: Inside Biden's delay on Indo-Pacific trade deal (Axios)

  • "The White House sent an urgent message last week to trade negotiators in San Francisco who were racing to reach an agreement on part of President Biden's trade plan with 13 Pacific Rim nations: Slow down," my Axios colleague Hans Nichols writes.
  • The message came after private pressure from Democrats concerned about labor standards.

Cheap stuff now: How China took over the world's online shopping carts (Rest of World)

  • "By September 2023, roughly a year after its launch, Temu had more than 61 million monthly active users in the U.S. ... It now sells in 48 countries around the world. Shein is one of the world's biggest fast-fashion companies and has branched out to selling other products, such as homewares and electronics."
  • "Like its Chinese sister app Pinduoduo, Temu also brought gamification to the shopping experience. Visitors to the platform can play a virtual farming game or feed virtual fish to win free items."

6. 📺 1 TV thing: Lawmakers question Apple over Jon Stewart cancellation

Illustration of arrow cursors aimed at Apple's logo.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party has sent a letter to Apple demanding a briefing regarding its recent decision to cancel "The Problem With Jon Stewart," reportedly in part due to concerns about content related to China.

What they're saying: "We support the ability of artists, writers, studios, and streaming services alike to create content without fear of potential CCP retaliation and punishment," committee members wrote in the letter.

  • "We similarly encourage American technology companies to diversify their supply chains, reduce their potential susceptibility to CCP pressure, and decrease their overall dependence on the PRC."

A big thank you to Alison Snyder for edits, Sheryl Miller for copy edits, Matt Phillips for contributing, and the Axios visuals team.