What President Xi Wants

The Chinese president’s Wednesday visit with tech executives in Seattle sets the tone for his trip to Washington later this week.

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping drink a toast at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2014.
Sept. 22, 2015, 5 a.m.

The White House has pub­licly cri­ti­cized China in re­cent months for ma­nip­u­lat­ing its cur­rency, en­ga­ging in cor­por­ate es­pi­on­age, pro­pos­ing re­stric­tions for U.S. tech firms that want to do busi­ness in the coun­try, and be­ing in­volved in a spate of cy­ber­at­tacks that tar­geted Amer­ic­an com­pan­ies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

Des­pite this ten­sion, however, Pres­id­ent Obama will greet Chinese Pres­id­ent Xi Jin­ping with a 21-gun sa­lute and a form­al state din­ner when he vis­its Wash­ing­ton this week. And while Obama has a long list of griev­ances he will likely want to take up with Xi, the Chinese pres­id­ent is com­ing with his own agenda.

Tech­no­logy and cy­bernorms will be a fo­cus of Xi’s state vis­it, which be­gins Tues­day in Seattle. There, Xi will com­mune with tech lead­ers—in­clud­ing the chief ex­ec­ut­ives of Amazon, Apple, Mi­crosoft, IBM, Google, and Face­book—be­com­ing the fourth con­sec­ut­ive Chinese lead­er to travel to the Pa­cific North­w­est tech hub.

The pres­id­ent’s vis­it comes dur­ing a tight­en­ing of re­stric­tions in Beijing on for­eign tech­no­logy com­pan­ies op­er­at­ing in China. Xi will likely try to con­vince Amer­ic­an com­pan­ies to com­ply with a series of drastic pro­pos­als that would change the way they do busi­ness in the coun­try.

One pro­pos­al would re­quire for­eign tech com­pan­ies to agree to store data about Chinese users with­in the coun­try, and main­tain “se­cure and con­trol­lable” products, a phrase which may amount to a gov­ern­ment re­quest for in­tim­ate ac­cess to sys­tems and tech­no­logy de­ployed in China, The New York Times re­por­ted last week.

A na­tion­al se­cur­ity law put for­ward this sum­mer in­cluded some of the same stip­u­la­tions about data loc­al­iz­a­tion, and would al­low the Chinese gov­ern­ment to levy fines against In­ter­net com­pan­ies that did not swiftly de­lete and re­port in­form­a­tion that Beijing finds ob­jec­tion­able.

Amer­ic­an tech com­pan­ies have in the past gone along with the laws China im­poses in or­der to pre­serve their ac­cess to the luc­rat­ive Chinese mar­ket. Chinese me­dia re­por­ted earli­er this year that Apple be­came the first for­eign tech­no­logy com­pany to sub­mit to Chinese “se­cur­ity checks.”

But Obama has pushed the busi­ness com­munity to back up the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­s­i­tions by air­ing their own griev­ances with the Chinese gov­ern­ment. “Don’t tell us on the side, ‘We’ve got this prob­lem, you need to look in­to it, but leave our names out of it be­cause we don’t want to be pun­ished’ kind of thing,” he told busi­ness lead­ers at a speech to the Busi­ness Roundtable last week.

“Typ­ic­ally, we are not ef­fect­ive with the Chinese un­less we are able to present facts and evid­ence of a prob­lem,” Obama con­tin­ued. “Oth­er­wise, they’ll just stone­wall and slow-walk is­sues.”

When Xi heads to D.C., cyberes­pi­on­age and cy­ber­space norms will fig­ure prom­in­ently in sched­uled meet­ings, which will come on the heels of ne­go­ti­ations between Amer­ic­an and Chinese of­fi­cials over the rules of cy­ber­war.

The White House is walk­ing a tightrope in its re­la­tions with China, try­ing to sim­ul­tan­eously re­spond firmly to China’s ag­gres­sion while keep­ing lines of com­mu­nic­a­tion open and pro­duct­ive.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­sidered im­pos­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions on China to pun­ish it for cy­ber­at­tacks, but has made clear the dis­tinc­tion between the theft of trade secrets, which it says is an an­ti­com­pet­it­ive prac­tice, and con­ven­tion­al es­pi­on­age. “We have re­peatedly said to the Chinese gov­ern­ment that we un­der­stand tra­di­tion­al in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing func­tions that all states, in­clud­ing us, en­gage in,” Obama said at the Busi­ness Roundtable speech. “And we will do everything we can to stop you from get­ting state secrets or tran­scripts of a meet­ing that I’ve had, but we un­der­stand you’re go­ing to be try­ing to do that.”

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have placed the large-scale breach at the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment in the cat­egory of tra­di­tion­al spy­ing, push­ing back against char­ac­ter­iz­a­tions of the breach as a cy­ber­at­tack. “That’s a pass­ive in­tel­li­gence-col­lec­tion activ­ity—just as we do,” said Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per at a Con­gres­sion­al hear­ing this month.

But as Wash­ing­ton braces it­self for the se­cur­ity pre­cau­tions that will ac­com­pany both Xi and Pope Fran­cis dur­ing their vis­its to the cap­it­al this week, some law­makers have ac­cused Obama of show­ing weak­ness in his deal­ings with China. Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates have piled on, too: Marco Ru­bio and Scott Walk­er last month called for Obama to down­play or out­right can­cel Xi’s vis­it.

Call­ing the U.S.–China re­la­tion­ship “the most con­sequen­tial in the world today,” Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor Susan Rice said Monday that on­go­ing en­gage­ment and ne­go­ti­ations are the only op­tion. “I know that some people ques­tion why we host China at all. That is a dan­ger­ous and short­sighted view,” she said at an ap­pear­ance at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity. “If we sought to pun­ish China by can­cel­ling meet­ings or re­fus­ing to en­gage them, we would only be pun­ish­ing ourselves.”

She ad­ded, “If Amer­ica chose to re­move it­self from China, we would only en­sure that the Chinese are not chal­lenged on the is­sues where we dif­fer and are not en­cour­aged to peace­fully rise with­in the in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem that we have done so much to build.”

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