Much of the high-gloss diplomacy surrounding Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington next week will be familiar to observers. There will be the photo ops, a state dinner, a wooden press conference featuring Xi and president Obama. As Xi struggles with a slowing economy and embarrassing disasters such as the Tianjin chemical explosion, Chinese leaders are especially eager for the summit to be a success—and, as is the case in China—using all means necessary to ensure that there is no criticism.
Xi Jinping’s brutality is less well appreciated than that of other leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But in his two years in power, Xi has reintroduced hardline rhetoric and retrograde tactics: stressing ideological purity for Communist Party members, reviving the practice of public confessions and sentencing rallies, and disappearing critics. His government detains peaceful activists for months at a time with virtually no due process rights while blithely proclaiming adherence to the rule of law. China increasingly hunts people seeking refuge from Beijing’s persecution overseas and, of course, remains the only government in the world to imprison a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Some of the usual features of a high-profile state visit can’t help but remind one of the bare-knuckle tactics China employs at home. Chinese state media outlets will run advertising supplements in US media just as rosy and scrubbed as the propaganda featured domestically. China might use the visit to request the return of citizens wanted on corruption charges, causing one to ponder whether they can get humane treatment, a fair trial, or indeed any trial in China. Lafayette Park—just opposite the White House—will be closed on the days of the visit, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps for public relations reasons and perhaps at the request of China, which locks down critics and routinely sweeps public gathering places of any possible protest for major events.