WASHINGTON — After getting an earful from U.S. lawmakers on his country’s human rights record Wednesday morning, the official expected to be China’s future leader faced a friendlier audience at a business-sponsored luncheon in Washington in which he sought to establish a personal connection with Americans.
But though the appearance was billed as the major policy speech of Vice President Xi Jinping’s first official U.S. visit, he offered few specifics and no new insights on China’s positions.
Xi told the audience stories of his Iowa visit 27 years ago and of how he helped the widow of a California physics professor fulfill a dream of visiting a Chinese town where he had lived as a boy.
The anecdote of the widow of the late Milton Gardner took up a good part of a 20-minute speech in which Xi emphasized the need for the U.S. and China to build mutual understanding and cooperation.
Xi, 58, repeated Beijing’s long insistence that the U.S. respect China’s one-country policy involving the island of Taiwan and to oppose any independent movement in Tibet, a region in western China where Beijing has been criticized severely for political repression.
And to drive home the point the U.S. isn’t doing enough to respect such “core interests,” Xi borrowed a line from George Washington that “action, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends.”
More broadly on human rights, Xi said the two sides should respect each other’s different “development paths” while adhering to human rights.
Earlier in the day, Xi got a taste of the political skills he will need to deal with American lawmakers, who have traditionally been much more direct and forceful than any given administration about China’s human rights and its treatment of political and religious dissidents.
Xi held a private meeting with nearly a dozen influential senators, both Republicans and Democrats, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who described himself as “the skunk at the garden party” and questioned the Chinese leader about human rights.
“I said that we admire all their progress, we admire their economy — unfortunately we still have Buddhist monks, Tibetans, burning themselves to death, Nobel Prize winners under house arrest,” McCain said, recounting the closed session. “And I said I do not understand why you continue to prop up North Korea, which is a threat to the security of the world, and I want to know why you vetoe d the resolution on Syria at the U.N. Security Council.”
“His answer was, ‘Senator McCain, your candor is well known in China.’ “ The response drew laughs around the room, those present said, from both the Chinese and U.S. officials.
After the speech, Xi left immediately for Iowa, where he is scheduled to stop in the town where he visited 27 years ago and also tour a farm near Des Moines. Farm goods are one area where the U.S. is running a large trade surplus with China.