The palace intrigue surrounding the shape of China'snext leadership is thick. Rumors abound about who's up, who's down and who's out. What is fairly certain is that Vice President Xi Jinping, who arrives Thursday in Los Angeles for a visit, will become general secretary of the Communist Party in November and China's next president in March 2013.
What we do not yet know is who will fill the remaining open slots on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, as seven of the nine members retire. That matters because the next president is unlikely to become a strongman, as in China's past. The leadership is becoming more and more oligarchic, with the members of the Standing Committee ruling by consensus. Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping led by decree. Xi will have to broker.
Xi will head a Communist Party that is increasingly split into two factions: the "populists" and the "elitists." Xi's father served as a vice premier under Mao, which makes Xi a "princeling" — a privileged child of Communist Party royalty. Xi's experience in running three advanced regions of China further aligns him with the elitists, who represent China's entrepreneurs. However, Xi was among the urban youths that Mao sent to live and work in the countryside, and he lived his teenage years in poverty in a cave home. From that experience, he surely must have some sympathy for a populist agenda.
Xi and his colleagues will have to contend with the elitist/populist rivalry at the same they're tackling daunting domestic problems. Air pollution, an aging population, a serious shortage of clean water and the growing gap in wealth have all become so serious that there is little room for error in their management.
The economic model that has propelled China forward so fast is no longer sustainable, but powerful entrenched interests are resisting the transition from investing and export-led growth to growth fueled by domestic consumption. Continued endemic corruption, meanwhile, is weakening the political system and sowing distrust among the people. The government is brutally suppressing local protests as well as intellectuals' calls for reform.
Understandably, China's leaders do not see their nation as the unstoppable giant that Americans do. They see potential chaos around every corner. These insecurities are one factor that feeds suspicions of America's motives among many Chinese — leaders and the people alike. It is becoming a mainstream view that the United States wants to weaken China or even "contain" it.
President Obama's trip to Asia in November, which heralded an overdue rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, fanned the flames of these concerns, as many in China saw each American initiative as part of a plan to encircle China, from the first U.S. troop presence in Australia to a new trade arrangement that demands high labor, environmental and intellectual property standards from the countries that join.
China does not have a monopoly on insecurity, however. Americans are worried about our economic future as the economy recovers at a slow pace. The specter of China's rapid growth throws America's troubles into sharp relief. Many Americans resent their jobs moving to China and Beijing's unfair trading practices.
Until the United States gets back on track with investments in education, innovation and other areas, continued economic insecurity in our country will lead many Americans to see China as more of a predatory, unstoppable economic engine than it is. This misperception will combine with China's insecurity about American intentions, causing, in turn, more Chinese to see America as a predatory, powerful political and military machine.
The United States needs to manage China's suspicions because America needs China's assistance on some key challenges. Rebalancing the global economy and developing clean energy are joint projects. Solving the quandaries of Iran and North Korea requires China's assistance.
So as the United States ramps up in Asia, it needs to continue to assure China that America welcomes its prosperity. While the U.S. pushes and prods China to follow international rules, especially when it comes to trade and human rights, it should continue to seek to expand cooperation in other areas and strengthen underutilized channels such as military-to-military, student exchanges and tourism.
Any perceived U.S. aggression only encourages nationalist hard-liners in China. The United States should not give these political players any assistance in the current power struggle.
It is easy to get caught up in the weekly drama of the U.S.-China relationship, especially during election season. Whether China continues to grow stronger or stumbles from its many internal problems, it is not going anywhere. America has to play the long game and get China policy right, not just for this month or year but for this decade and century. We are interdependent and stuck with one another.
Angelenos have an easier time with this reality than some of their friends inside the Beltway. Xi's visit here may lay the groundwork for more trust. Or at least less suspicion.
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent report on U.S.-China relations is "Managing Insecurities Across the Pacific."