Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping swept into Los Angeles on Thursday for a brief but action-packed visit that will include a stop at a local school, quality time with Vice President Joe Biden and tickets to Friday night's Lakers game.
"He's a Kobe fan," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who invited Xi to the game.
The mayor and Gov. Jerry Brown welcomed Xi, who is expected to become president of China next year, on the tarmac at LAX. From there, they drove to the Port of Los Angeles for a tour of a shipping terminal.
The Chinese official's five-day trip to the U.S. has been met with considerable pomp — he was greeted with a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon earlier this week — and his arrival at the port was no different. A long row of Chinese flags had been lined up alongside a sleek, green China Shipping freighter, and a throng of shipping company executives were there to meet him.
The port has invested $245 million in recent years to nearly double the size of the China Shipping terminal, which Xi called "a good foundation for the further development of U.S. trade and economic cooperation."
He did not mention the trade deficit between the U.S. and China, which international observers say is a major undercurrent of his trip. The deficit, which last year hit a record high, is stark at the port, where last year $120 billion worth of Chinese goods were imported, but only $13 billion of American goods were exported to China.
Instead, Xi praised the environmentally friendly measures in place at China Shipping. In 2004, the company became the first line to plug its vessels into electric power sources rather than burn fossil fuel while docked.
"We're not just growing our port, we're greening our port," Villaraigosa told Xi.
The pair met a few months ago in Beijing when the mayor was in China for a trade mission. Villaraigosa said he was pleased that Xi had taken him up on his offer to visit Los Angeles. Usually, when visiting dignitaries come to the U.S., "they go to Washington, they go to New York," Villaraigosa said.
Jerrold Green, president of the Pacific Council on International Policy, said Xi's tour of Los Angeles would help the city be seen as a crucial gateway to the East for trade and commerce. "I think it's really important that we are regarded as and act like a global city," Green said.
As for Xi, Green said, one of the motivations behind the vice president's trip may be to "humanize him" for an international audience.
"I think it's important for America to see the next leader of China and to see he's a capable guy, a pretty down-to-Earth guy," Green said.
Xi's plans to attend the Lakers game seemed designed to convey that message. Villaraigosa said Xi hopes to come to Staples Center for the second half of Friday's game.
If he attends, it will cap off a whirlwind day that is expected to begin with an economic forum where DreamWorks will unveil plans to build an animation studio in Shanghai. Then Xi will be joined by Biden, with whom he met earlier this week in Washington, and they will visit a school that sends students to China, and attend a luncheon and a meeting with U.S. and Chinese governors at Disney Hall.
A group of protesters calling for Tibetan autonomy will probably be tagging along as well.
Dhonam Pemba, of the Tibetan Assn. of Southern California, said hundreds of activists showed up to protest Chinese human rights abuses at several events Thursday that were attended by other members of the Chinese diplomatic delegation. Demonstrators staged a noisy protest outside of a dinner for Xi at the JW Marriott on Thursday night.
In recent years, more than 20 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest half a century of Chinese rule. The most recent self-immolation, by a monk named Lobsang Gyatso, occurred Monday.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Richard Verrier contributed to this report.