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China’s Xi arrives in San Francisco for first US trip in 6 years

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at San Francisco International Airport ahead of the APEC summit on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in San Francisco. The APEC summit is being held in San Francisco and runs through Nov. 17. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Jacob Gu Bloomberg News

President Xi Jinping arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday for a high-stakes meeting with his American counterpart Joe Biden, as the Chinese leader’s first trip to the U.S. in six years drew crowds of protesters and supporters onto the city’s heavily policed streets.

Xi was greeted at about 3 p.m. local time by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — one of the several top U.S. officials who smoothed the path for his visit. The Chinese leader is traveling with his chief of staff Cai Qi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

China’s most-powerful leader since Mao Zedong is in California for days of talks with statesmen and CEOs designed to boost confidence in the Asian giant’s slowing economy. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has made a flurry of gestures to Washington in recent days, including buying 3 million tons of U.S. soybeans, to prepare for a successful leaders’ meeting Wednesday.

“What we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better,” Biden told reporters at the White House shortly before departing for San Francisco, where he arrived earlier Tuesday.

This is Xi’s third stop outside China this year, after trips to Russia and South Africa, nations where his government has less tumultuous ties. The U.S. visit — his most high-profile act of foreign diplomacy in 2023 — presents a tougher climate, with bipartisan criticism of Beijing’s trade, human rights and national security policies.

Reflecting how Xi’s presence in America was dividing local Chinese communities, a large crowd gathered outside the downtown hotel where the Asian leader was expected to stay, with protesters and CCP supporters blaring patriotic music both held back behind metal barriers.

While welcome crowds were the larger bloc, the opposition group was at times hard to miss: A plane on Tuesday morning circled over the Moscone Center, where this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is being held, reading: “End CCP, Free China, Free HK, Free Tibet, Free Uyghur.”

This week’s summit has been designated a national special security event, as leaders from most of the forum’s 21 member economies descend on California. Metal fences separate the sidewalk and street near the summit’s hub, where uniformed officers carrying thick batons are patrolling the area.

A handful of anti-Communist Party protesters had gathered on the streets early Tuesday. One Chinese woman held a placard that asked Shanghai authorities to return her “husband’s life,” without explanation, while another man held a sign that said “China has concentration camps.”

Some 1,000 people are expected to converge on the Moscone Center as Biden and Xi sit down for the first time in a year on Wednesday, according to Ray Zhang, a scientist working in biotechnology who is helping organize the protests.

The demonstrators will include people protesting China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, as well as members of the Falun Gong religious group.

“We want to show the U.S. audience the Communist Party has a track record of human rights abuse,” Zhang said. “And we want to show the audience in China there are lots of people actually against the Communist Party.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, on Saturday held a rally with Chinese dissidents, where he claimed attendees of a dinner with business leaders being hosted for Xi were paying $40,000 to sit at the Chinese leader’s table. “Xi Jinping must look at America and see nothing but mercenaries,” he added.

The Republican wrote to the U.S.-China Business Council and National Committee on U.S.-China Relations demanding the organizers provide details of the guest list, funding and profits. Neither group responded to Bloomberg’s request for comment on the dinner.

Some of the biggest names in American business are scheduled to attend this week’s CEO summit at APEC, among them Citigroup Inc.’s Jane Fraser, Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Darren Woods, Microsoft Corp.’s Satya Nadella and Tesla Inc. and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. No names have been confirmed on the guest list for the Wednesday dinner, including Xi.

Beijing appeared keen to ensure that domestic audiences saw Xi receiving a warm welcome to the U.S. Chinese students and emigrants from across the U.S. have been bused to the airport to greet him, according to people briefed on the plans.

The U.S. has issued hundreds of visas for Chinese reporters to cover the summit, according to a person involved in preparations this week, who asked not to be identified discussing a private matter. State broadcaster China Central Television said it had sent more than 180 reporters to cover the event in 68 languages.

Mobilizing the ethnic Chinese community for Xi’s reception tells domestic audiences that “their leader is well-received and popular globally,” said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“Xi would like to project an image of confidence and strength,” he added.