By Antoni Slodkowski and Laurie Chen
BEIJING (Reuters) – What a difference in eight months: In March, shortly after the United States shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, President Xi Jinping blamed it for the difficulties facing the Chinese economy, complaining of a “generalized confinement”.
The United States and Xi agreed on Wednesday to open a presidential hotline, resume military-to-military communications and work to reduce fentanyl production, demonstrating tangible progress in their first face-to-face talks for a year at a summit in California.
As key issues such as US sanctions on chip exports remain unresolved, Chinese state media is now striking a different tone, focusing on Xi’s smile during his previous trips to Iowa, discussions by the fire with its inhabitants and sharing chocolates with Biden.
Clips of the summit on Chinese social media show the two leaders walking through the gardens of the talks site and chatting in Xi’s official limousine, with discussions of U.S. technology restrictions and tensions over Taiwan less visible.
Chinese rhetoric seeks to show Xi to a domestic audience as Biden’s equal and highlights his desire to stabilize relations as China struggles with a moribund economy, analysts say. It also sends a signal of approval to the bureaucracy and businesses about their engagement with Americans.
“This reflects a very strong desire on the part of Chinese leaders to stabilize relations with the United States and promote more cooperation,” said Li Mingjiang, an international relations specialist at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“There is this fundamental message in the Chinese narrative that the Chinese leader is capable of managing China-US relations… he is the one giving instructions to the United States and American leaders on how to manage the bilateral relations.”
China’s domestic propaganda machine has been working overtime to pave the way for Xi’s change of course, which was also evident at a dinner with US leaders, when he promised that China was ready to be a “partner and friend” of the United States and that there was “much room for bilateral relations.” cooperation”.
While official relations remain tense, Chinese state media have focused on people-to-people relations and highlighted the potential for cooperation and the importance of the summit for the Asia-Pacific region.
“The international community is watching with bated breath, recognizing the weight of this meeting,” the official Xinhua news agency said in an editorial. “When Sino-US relations are good, the region benefits; when relations deteriorate, the region suffers.”
Xinhua also published a 1,500-word report recalling Xi’s past visits to the United States.
“Xi never forgets his American friends and believes that the people hold the key to interstate relations,” the news agency said.
The report cited Iowans who helped coordinate a trip Xi took to the state in 1985 as a young official, describing his “smile that wouldn’t stop” and praising his curiosity. It also describes Biden and Xi enjoying chocolates from a box during a past exchange.
Gary Dvorchak, an Iowa resident considered by Xi to be an old friend of China, said Xi’s affection for Iowa was genuine, but that the Chinese leader also used his ties to the state for purposes. propaganda purposes.
“It humanizes him and gives him the ability to show a connection to the American people and bypass the American media,” Dvorchak said.
“They use it when they need to build support domestically or internationally,” said Dvorchak, who said he thought it was a shrewd public relations move.
“Part of the reason it works is that these feelings are real.”
But even on censored Chinese social networks, users have found ways to make critical comments in the tone of the official commentary.
“Where have relations improved? Tariffs, potato chips, studying abroad, none of that is mentioned.”
On the Chinese microblogging site Weibo (NASDAQ:), the most popular hashtag Thursday again recalled the tensions around Taiwan: “China must and will be reunified.”