Skip to main content

Obama, talk about political reform with Xi

By Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen, Special to CNN
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Fri June 7, 2013
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7. The retreat has been the site of many presidential and celebrity visits through the years. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7. The retreat has been the site of many presidential and celebrity visits through the years.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
Sunnylands and its esteemed guests
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama and President Xi Jinping are meeting for informal talks
  • Cheng Li, Ryan McElveen: The two leaders should discuss their domestic issues
  • Obama is uniquely qualified to focus on the importance of Chinese political reform, they say
  • Li, McElveen: Obama can remind Xi to seize the moment and stand on the right side of history

Editor's note: Cheng Li is director of research for the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings Institution. Ryan McElveen is a research assistant in the center.

(CNN) -- In contrast to the 2002 farewell summit between President George W. Bush and outgoing Chinese President Jiang Zemin at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, this week's talks between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in California mark the first time in history that a U.S. president will host a series of informal meetings with a new Chinese leader.

While issues such as North Korea, cybersecurity and the economy will likely dominate their discussions, what really matters is whether Xi and Obama can establish a trusting personal relationship that will help both leaders overcome stark policy differences.

As charismatic leaders who view themselves as transformational figures, what better way to start the conversation than to outline their aspirations and plans for resolving pressing domestic matters?

Cheng Li
Cheng Li
Most important relationship in the world
Ryan McElveen
Ryan McElveen
What will Obama, Xi discuss?

Both Xi and Obama are finding themselves at political crossroads that will define their subsequent days in office. Both need to solve a confluence of structural problems while confronting cynical constituencies that can easily turn on them.

For Obama, dealing with a seemingly intractable partisan divide in Washington is hard enough. A series of recent bureaucratic problems has made his burden worse, resulting in what some have referred to as his "second term blues."

For Xi, an apparent turn to conservatism has the potential to bring his erstwhile reform-minded political honeymoon to an untimely end.

Luckily, each leader has the opportunity this week to talk with one of the few counterparts in the world who can empathize with the magnitude of the issues.

In his first few months as president, Xi has worked to give the Chinese government a face-lift, trying to contain corruption and construct a sense of nationalism by offering his people something they aspire to: the Chinese Dream, or what Xi has described as the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the opportunity to realize a middle-class lifestyle.

As Xi pursues these aspirations, he should join Obama in exploring similar issues that are hindering both countries -- a growing divide between the rich and poor, persistent post-graduate unemployment, housing bubbles, food safety concerns, immigration (or internal migration for China) reform, health care reform and tax reform.

If Xi is to be successful in confronting these issues, it will be difficult to do so without political reform.

In China, dissent has been growing on college campuses, where academics have received recommendations instructing them not to speak about seven sensitive issues: universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civil rights, past party mistakes, crony capitalism and judicial independence. Whether such official guidelines persist will determine if there is hope for an open and intellectually dynamic political environment that can accommodate socioeconomic changes.

As a former professor of constitutional law, Obama is uniquely situated to address the importance of Chinese political reform and constitutionalism. Obama needs to stress that avoiding intellectual discussion of political issues doesn't make them go away—it only pushes such discussion into less structured arenas, and China has seen how that has turned out in the past.

As the first black president, Obama can also candidly and respectfully articulate America's lessons from the civil rights movement and its firm commitment to democracy, human rights, media freedom and the rule of law, which the United States believe to be fundamental to the long-term stability and prosperity of any country.

Some might argue that discussion of China's much needed political reform would set Obama and Xi on course for a contentious relationship. In fact, it would help remind Xi that he can seize this moment to stand on the right side of history and turn back from the conservative path before he squanders the reform-minded political capital he has built over his first productive months in office.

Instead of focusing solely on specific issues like national security and economic rebalancing, Obama and Xi have an opportunity to set the stage for a deeper, more candid and more cooperative Sino-American relationship by crafting a shared vision of the future and drawing on the common needs and desires of the Chinese and American people.

Only by talking about their domestic challenges and areas for improvement will they realize the potential fruits to be born out of such cooperation. And only when such unity of purpose is realized will China and America be able to work together and tackle the economic and security issues of our time.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT