Much has been made of the fact that the Chinese and American presidents are meeting in informal surroundings on Friday at the Sunnylands retreat, the former estate of Walter Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, California. Protocol will be kept to a minimum and the presidents will meet in short-sleeved shirts.
Chinese officials are usually extremely pedantic about protocol when senior leaders travel abroad, especially when the head of state visits the US. As Susan V Lawrence noted before Xi visited Washington, DC as vice-president in February 2012, Chinese officials want to ensure that the image projected back to domestic audiences is one of a Chinese leader who is able to 'hold his own with the US president and command international respect.'
This matters enormously because the images can be used within the Communist Party to demonstrate US respect for the leader, and thus boost his stature.
So, why has Xi agreed to this informal setting for his first visit to the US as China's president? Since becoming China's top leader last November, Xi has made it clear that he wants to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Hu was known for his stiff, cardboard-like persona. When Xi walked on to the stage for the first time as head of the Chinese Communist Party he was smiling and he gave a speech using ordinary language (without mentioning Marxism a single time). Xi espouses confidence and a jovial demeanour.
Chinese officials' insistence on formality is in part a reflection of the formalistic rituals which were an inherent part of interaction in Chinese traditional and hierarchal society. But I have always interpreted the near-obsession of officials in modern China with protocol as a sign of Chinese insecurity. Despite China's rise, Beijing's leaders continuously seek respect from the West and the US in particular. If Xi is feeling more confident or, more importantly, wants to be perceived as confident and secure in his position, there's no reason to be so insistent on protocol or formality issues.
Will the informal setting make a difference? It could. The intention of the two-day retreat is for the presidents to get to know each other and start building personal trust. There is a bigger chance of this happening if they are not boxed in by formal procedures and protocol.
At least Xi won't suffer the fate of Hu Jintao, who on his first visit to the US as head of state in 2006 was heckled by a Falun Gong protester during the welcome ceremony on the south lawn of the White House. A little later he had to suffer the humiliation of the White House announcer confusing the official name of China with that of Taiwan (Republic of China) when introducing the national anthem.
Photo by Flickr user Antonio Villaraigrossa.