Monday, July 15, 2024

The streets outside the San Francisco hotel where Chinese leader Xi Jinping addressed a crowd of American business executives Wednesday night were chaotic, echoing with police sirens and the chants of protesters. A woman had strapped herself to a pole 25 feet in the air in front of the hotel, yelling “Free Tibet!” as a cold rain fell.

But inside the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency, the atmosphere was warm and friendly. More than 300 executives and officials listened attentively as Mr. Xi — the leader of a country often considered America’s greatest rival — spoke for over half an hour about an enduring friendship between China and the United States that could not be diminished by recent turmoil.

Mr. Xi spoke of pandas. He spoke of Ping-Pong. He spoke of Americans and Chinese working together during World War II to battle the Japanese. He addressed the tensions that have rocked U.S. and Chinese relations in the past year only briefly and obliquely, comparing the relationship to a giant ship that was trying to navigate through storms.

“The number one question for us is: are we adversaries, or partners?” Mr. Xi asked. Seeing the other side as a competitor, he said, would only lead to misinformed policy and unwanted results. “China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States.”

Among those who paid thousands of dollars to attend the dinner and hear Mr. Xi’s message were Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, Larry Fink of BlackRock, and Jerry Brown, the former governor of California. They mingled with executives from Boeing, Pfizer, Nike and FedEx. Elon Musk popped by during the cocktail hour to greet Mr. Xi, but departed before dinner began.

Mr. Xi’s tone was welcomed by many of those in attendance, who believe that more engagement between the United States and China will improve the lives of people in both countries, reduce misunderstandings and potentially even deter a war.

“I think it’s important Americans and Chinese are meeting again face to face,” John L. Holden, managing director for China of McLarty Associates, a consultancy, said as he queued outside the hotel. “This is not a magic bullet, but it is something that can provide possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”

Mr. Xi’s positive tone, and the enthusiasm of some of the event’s attendees, struck a sharp contrast with much of the recent conversation in the United States about China, which has focused on potential economic and security threats.Republican lawmakers have blasted President Biden for his “zombie engagement” with China. Recent polls have shown that Americans are more concerned about the rise of China than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

At a news conference Wednesday, Mr. Biden celebrated a successful meeting with Mr. Xi earlier that day, which had resulted in agreements to fight drug trafficking and increase communication between the countries’ militaries. But when asked if he still thought Mr. Xi was a dictator, Mr. Biden replied: “Well, look, he is.”

China has for decades been an attractive market for American businesses because of its size and growth, but the country’s slowing economy and increasingly authoritarian bent have been cooling the enthusiasm executives feel toward China.Foreign companies say the Chinese government has been slowly squeezing them out in favor of local competitors.

While some think Chinese leaders have been shaken by a recent drop-off in foreign investment in China and are motivated to mend ties, executives are still concerned about recent crackdowns in China on foreign business and strict regulations, including on how companies use Chinese data.

For companies that manufacture in China, supply chain disruptions during the pandemic also sent a strong message that firms should not rely on a single country for their goods, and kicked off a trend toward “de-risking.”

Still, some American businesses are still making a lot of money in China. “I don’t think that anybody thinks that one dinner, or one visit, or one conference is going to reverse all the hostility that has built up between the U.S. and China,” Michael Hart, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said in an interview on Tuesday. But he added that if Mr. Xi had a friendlier stance toward the United States, “that will hopefully mean a slightly more friendly operating environment toward U.S. business in China.”

In the ballroom, 34 tables were laid with roses and orchids. They were numbered 1 to 39, skipping any number with a four, which in Chinese sounds similar to death, as well as unlucky number 13. Guests chose between a coffee-crusted Black Angus steak and vegetable curry with jasmine rice and toasted pistachios

Gina Raimondo, the U.S. secretary of commerce who spoke at the dinner, thanked Mr. Xi for a productive meeting earlier that day, where Chinese officials had met with Mr. Biden and his deputies.“We all know that we have differences,” Ms. Raimondo said at the dinner. “I’m not going to pretend otherwise. That being said, President Biden has been very clear that while we compete with China and other countries, we do not seek conflict and we do not seek confrontation.”

“We want robust trade with China,” Ms. Raimondo said. She said that many of the people in attendance remained keenly interested in doing business in China. “I know that because many of you come to see me and tell me that,” she said, to laughter.

Mr. Xi, who has overseen China’s military modernization and increasingly robust projection of power abroad, emphasized China’s commitment to a rules-based international system, its efforts to eradicate poverty, and its peaceful nature. Mr. Xi also touted his personal connections to the United States, including the time he spent in Iowa in the 1980s and an old photo he said he keeps of himself in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

China has no intention to challenge the United States or unseat it,” he said.

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