The Jury Is Still Out On President Xi Jinping’s PR Efforts

The jury is still out on whether the U.S. visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping was the public relations success Chinese officials may have wanted it to be. While most international political observers agree that Xi is now better known to the average joe in the U.S., they do not all agree that he is better liked, or that he came across as anything more than just the leader of a superpower that has to be treated with caution.

Before Xi’s visit, his foreign minister Wang Yi, promised a “people first visit” that would showcase his boss’s “extensive outreach to the American people.”

Professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, Avery Goldstein sums up Xi’s visit by saying, “Many are struck by what seems to be the subdued and careful demeanor of Xi. Few Americans have a deep impression of Xi Jinping as a person or leader, and instead simply view him as important only because of his role as President of China.”

The observers says there were two objectives to Xi’s visit: to present him as the strong leader of a continually rising economic and military power; while at the same time showcasing his “softer side” to offset the way he was viewed by the western world as the feared leader of a “Communist juggernaut”.

University of Miami political science professor and former commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June Teufel Dreyer, says the PR efforts which included promises to the UN for human rights improvements in China and deals on climate change; and hanging out with football players at a high school, did not work. She says “Xi looked stiff and over-rehearsed. He certainly appeared unspontaneous and anything but warm.”

The director of U.S. Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, Shi Yinhong, although agreeing Xi’s image was not softened as much as foreign minister Wang Yi had hoped for, gives the president full marks for a good effort. He says, “Xi Jinping’s definitely not the chatty, laughing, smiling type,” but he did try to engage with the public, even mentioning Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and other U.S. cultural references in speeches.

The vice dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Shanghai Fudan University, Shen Dingli says although Xi may not have come across as warm and fuzzy, his wife Peng Liyuan, a popular Chinese folk singer, made up for it. Dingli cited her interaction with Michelle Obama while visiting a zoo to name a Panda, and giving singing lessons to public school students, as great PR for China saying, “These are, in my view, examples of China’s ever improving diplomacy and public diplomacy.”

Some observers say too much emphasis has been placed on how Xi was viewed by the public. The director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, Paul Haenle, says not too much attention should be paid to the humanizing PR efforts but rather to the business at hand which world leaders are meant to focus on.

“Connecting on a personal level is important but what we also need to do is address the concerns of the business community,” says Haenle. “Ultimately, the most important thing is to address seriously the legitimate concerns of the business community, about access and security of intellectual property in China.”

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