Guest Opinion: Xi’s message to Americans


Who can deny that the world would benefit by stable U.S.-China relations? Who can deny that the world would benefit by China’s economic growth and development?

by Robert Lawrence Kuhn

President Xi Jinping’s extraordinary meeting with American business and academic leaders has rightly caught the attention of the international media. Well it should. Among the concerns on which the peace and prosperity of the world depends, two of the biggest are the state of U.S.-China relations and the prospects for China’s economic development — both of which were primary themes of Xi’s carefully planned message to Americans.

The setting counts. It was right after the annual China Development Forum, where foreign corporate CEOs come to engage with China’s policymakers. Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, who met with the CEOs, thereby elevated the meeting’s importance with the highest authority. In the new era, with the CPC directly responsible for leading all sectors of China, the fact that Xi himself held the meeting is itself the first important message of the meeting.

The readout of President Xi’s meeting, as reported in China’s state media, is a fascinating probe of the current way of thinking of China’s leaders. Although President Xi is always well prepared for his meetings and speeches, he seemed extraordinarily well prepared for this extraordinarily timely meeting. The structure and specificity of his remarks combined to form the clearest, most incisive, most direct and in-depth expression of Xi’s views on China-U.S. relations, and on China’s economy, that I recall in a meeting of this kind. Thus, one can infer two big themes: China is committed to seeking improved relations with the U.S., and China is determined to more comprehensively reform and open up. Although these two themes are hardly new, there was something about Xi’s remarks this time that seemed different, something that signaled intensified commitment.

On U.S.-China relations, Xi’s message was unambiguous. The very fact that he chose to meet with American CEOs and American China experts is a neon-flashing sign that China seeks to stop the cascading slide in relations, to stabilize relations, and to carefully build relations back up. Xi placed his trust in the people in general and in people-to-people exchanges in specific, which is a long-standing foundation of Xi’s approach to foreign policy broadly. Referring to China-U.S. relations, Xi stressed, “the future will of course be created by the people,” and he expressed the hope that “people from all sectors of Chinese and American societies will have more mutual visits and exchanges.”

What I found striking was that while Xi called for cooperation not confrontation, mutual respect and win-win results, as he does normally and generally, he acknowledged that “the relationship cannot go back to the old days,” a powerful and realistic recognition, which counterintuitively gives credence to his follow-on exhortation, “but it (China-U.S. relations) can embrace a brighter future.” Only an honest assessment of the present can enable a hopeful vision of the future.

What was no surprise was that President Xi was optimistic about China’s economy — which is Topic One on everyone’s mind — by reminding his listeners that China’s growth rate in 2023 was among the highest of the major economies and accounted for over 30 percent of global growth, much as in previous years. What was something of a surprise was that Xi told the story of China’s economy in the context of two negative “theories” about China’s economy: the “China collapse theory” of the past, which of course did not happen, and the “Peak China theory” of the present, which Xi says will not happen.

China, Xi said, “will continue to advance high-quality development and Chinese modernization, enable the Chinese people to live a better life, and contribute more to sustainable development in the world.” These words were not crafted as smooth talk for foreign visitors but are the overarching strategic policy of Chinese leaders and the day-to-day operational guidelines for Chinese officials. The new mantra for China’s economic growth is “high-quality development,” which is driven by “new quality productive forces.” Everyone who counts in China gets the message.

On reform and opening up, Xi’s words were weighed judiciously, as they always are. There has been concern among foreign businesses, and even among some entrepreneurs in China, that reform and opening up had stalled. While Xi stated that “reform and opening up holds the key to contemporary China’s catching up with the times in great strides,” that “China’s reform will not pause, and its opening up will not stop,” he has said similar many times. That’s why I focused on what he said next: “China is planning and implementing a series of major steps for comprehensively deepening reform, and steadily fostering a market-oriented, law-based and world-class business environment.”

The operative word is “planning,” which means that there are new structures, new regulations and/or new measures on the horizon, which are sufficiently different from those that exist presently, to justify the phrase “major steps for comprehensively deepening reform.” If Xi had stated only the general principles, his words alone might not have instilled high confidence. But putting the world on notice, building wide-spread expectations, gives credence from the top that China is serious about a new round of economic reforms. This is why I would expect, which most foreign analysts would not, significant economic reforms, the most in a decade or so.

The proof, of course, will be the specifics of the plan, and then its real-world implementation. For example, in recent days, the government continued to shorten the negative list for foreign investment, ending restrictions on market access for foreign investment in manufacturing, while opening up the medical and telecommunications sectors. Moreover, China’s cybersecurity regulator has relaxed constraints on outbound data flows so that foreign businesses operating in China can feel more secure in conducting their normal business. Promises to give equal national treatment to foreign firms, including in government procurements, bears monitoring.

To me, a major motivating factor for President Xi is that to truly achieve his grand vision for China — “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” — China must become a world-class business center, and to become so in the real world, China must have a “market-oriented, law-based and world-class business environment.”

Who can deny that the world would benefit by stable U.S.-China relations? Who can deny that the world would benefit by China’s economic growth and development? Both sit centerstage globally in these tense mid-years of the third decade of the 21st century.

Editor’s note: Robert Lawrence Kuhn is chairman of The Kuhn Foundation. He was awarded the China Reform Friendship Medal.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Xinhua News Agency.■

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