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June 23, 2017

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Xi polishes China's image on US visit

As expected, the visit to the United States by China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, did not result in any policy breakthroughs — he is, after all, only the crown prince and has not yet been anointed as No. 1.

The trip itself is the continuation of a practice begun 10 years ago when China's then-Vice President Hu Jintao was invited to Washington by his American counterpart, Dick Cheney, so that the United States could take the measure of the man scheduled to become China's leader.

On this visit there were strong echoes of the Hu trip a decade ago.

In 2002, then-Vice President Hu noted that it was a significant time because it was 30 years since Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in February 1972, a visit that Nixon claimed had changed the world.

Similarly, this month, Vice President Xi noted the significance of the timing of his visit — the 40th anniversary of Nixon's visit to China and the issuance of the Shanghai Communique.

Then as now, human rights groups called on the United States to put pressure on the visiting Chinese leader to improve human rights in China. But such calls are likely to get as much — or as little — of a response now as they did then.

But there have also been changes.

In 2002, the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian was president in Taiwan, and Hu warned that "Taiwan independence" forces could bring about catastrophic consequences.

This year, with Taiwan now governed by Ma Ying-jeou, Xi did not sound the same warnings.

Visits by Chinese leaders to the United States are useful in shedding light on the personality of the individuals involved.

In 2002 Hu Jintao came off as stiff and somewhat aloof. Even in China, Hu appears impassive in public.

By contrast, Vice President Xi took pains to show his personal side. He flew to the small town of Muscatine in Iowa for a reunion and tea with "old friends" he had met 27 years ago, during his first visit to the United States, and took time to watch an NBA game, gestures that certainly scored points with the American public.

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