Before Washington, Xi courts business leaders in Seattle

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Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 22-28 visit to the United States starts not in the capital Washington DC, but in Washington state, on the country’s west coast. Here’s why.

On his first state visit to the US, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel first to the country’s west coast, meeting with business leaders and the Chinese community in and around Seattle from September 22 to 24.

His agenda there is designed to showcase China’s strong business relationships on the west coast, at a time when relations with the US government have soured over allegations of Chinese cyber espionage, over its economic policy and over its sabre-rattling in the South and East China Seas.

In Seattle, those concerns are likely to be overshadowed by mutual interests in business, in a place where China is still seen as “more of an opportunity than a threat,” said David Bachman, a US-China relations expert at the University of Washington’s Henry M Jackson School of International Studies.

“The west coast doesn’t do foreign policy,” he said. “Many issues just won’t be brought up.”

In Seattle and nearby cities, Xi will be received by a host of business leaders, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, according to media reports.

He is slated to give a speech Tuesday at a dinner sponsored by the US-China Business Council and the National Council for US-China Relations.

On Wednesday, he is to tour Boeing’s factory in nearby Everett, Washington, and participate in a roundtable of chief executives and the US-China Internet Industry Forum, a China-sponsored summit of major US and Chinese tech companies on Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus.

While organizers have not confirmed the guest list, media reports suggest it could include some of tech’s biggest players, including chief executives of Apple, Microsoft and Chinese companies Alibaba and Baidu, among others.

China traditionally has strong business and cultural ties with the US west coast and with the state of Washington in particular. Washington exports more to China than any other US state, according to The New York Times.

Chinese President Deng Xiaopeng visited Seattle on the first US visit of a post-revolutionary Chinese leader in 1979. The city later hosted Presidents Jiang Zemin in 1993 and Hu Jintao in 2006.

By starting this visit in Seattle ahead of what could be tense meetings at the White House, Xi can remind audiences back home of China’s clout in the US tech and business worlds, and reassure investors concerned about China’s stock market and economic slowdown that the country still commands respect, Bachman said.

It’s also a reminder that US business needs China’s goodwill to access its markets, and an opportunity for Xi to enlist US tech’s help to keep the US government from hitting China with economic sanctions for cyber crimes.

US technology companies hope to increase their access to China’s 668 million internet users, and fear sanctions could boomerang back on to their bottom line.

But many are wary of China’s increasing state surveillance of and restrictions on the internet – a place where their business interests in meeting Xi may cross over into the political realm.

Ahead of the visit, the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch published an open letter to tech executives meeting Xi in Seattle, urging them to ask him to curtail China’s online restrictions and to resist Chinese demands to turn over user data.

“It is important to remember that foreign technology companies have considerable leverage over the Chinese government,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth wrote to chief executives of Google, Alphabet, Apple, Cisco Systems, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Uber.

In that sense, the visit may also be a chance for business leaders to “quietly urge China to think very carefully about what it’s doing … and to present their own view about what needs to be done to stabilize” US-China relations, Bachman said.

“It is important for them to hear that from someone other than the US government,” he added.

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