China’s President Xi Jinping is not an easy-going guy. Or if he is, he doesn’t show it in public.
That’s something U.S. President Barack Obama, who will be leaving the White House next week, is not only better at than Mr. Xi, but also better at than his predecessor, to say nothing of his successor.
Being dazzling is Mr. Obama’s specialty. He’s good at going off script to crack a joke. His body language becomes loose and relaxed without him losing his dignity or betraying the seriousness of the situation. Mr. Obama is authentic. He combines being statesmanlike and self-deprecating better than anyone.
In this balancing act Mr. Xi lists heavily to one side. But next week, he will need to manage both like never before. Things will be Swiss and formal during his state visit in Bern. The World Economic Forum in Davos, however, is the most informal major political event in the world.
Has Mr. Xi been secretly practicing? At times, he gives the impression of not being completely unfamiliar with being casual. There is something reminiscent of Baloo the Bear from Jungle Book about him. But it would be going too far to say he occasionally reveals glimpses of sly humor, as Chancellor Angela Merkel does.
Mr. Xi must meet a far wider spectrum of expectations than Ms. Merkel, Mr. Obama & Co.
Mr. Obama recently said of Ms. Merkel that she has a good sense of humor but just doesn’t show it publicly. You can sense Ms. Merkel not only lets Mr. Obama lure her out into the opens waters of being casual but quite possibly earned her merit badge swimming with him when the cameras weren’t around. Mr. Obama has tried that with Mr. Xi but he wouldn’t allow it – it just isn’t done among rivals.
The people who have spoken in private with Mr. Xi consider the Chinese president to be intelligent, quick-witted and more relaxed than his stuffy predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. That’s already quite a lot.
But Mr. Xi has a problem that his Western counterparts do not. Mr. Xi must meet a far wider spectrum of expectations than Ms. Merkel, Mr. Obama & Co.
Mr. Xi must win over traditionally minded people in rural China who want a new Mao, Chinese city dwellers who prefer a less dramatic political style, and the people of the Western world, who are used to an Obama. When in doubt, domestic policy takes precedence.
How Mr. Xi appears to the West, however, is very important. He is traveling to Davos to promote his politics, after all. So it will be an interesting week. Mr. Xi must pass a soft power test. Appearing in a cardigan, as Helmut Kohl once did, is no longer enough.
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