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What the White House should do when China's Xi Jinping visits Washington

Tuesday, February 14 Joe Biden hosts his Chinese counterpart in Washington when Xi Jinping makes his first official visit to the U.S. as vice president. 

Xi is widely expected to be named to China’s most powerful post at the end of the 18th Communist Party Congress. The Congress, to be held this fall, formally begins an historic political transition as the so-called "Fourth Generation" leaders give way to the Fifth.

Little is known about Xi outside senior circles in Beijing. 

Predictably, America’s China experts have said it will be important to establish ties with the 58-year-old leader. “This is really a chance for the Obama administration to look forward to the succession and post-succession period in China and begin to establish critical personal relationships and a personal comfort level back and forth,” said Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution.

Are relationships with Chinese officials “critical”? Just about everyone would say they are. The proposition makes sense because guanxi—personal connection—is so important in Chinese society for getting things done.

Yet there is scant evidence that having good personal ties with China’s supreme leaders has ever helped America get what it wanted from Beijing. Moreover, “friendship”—if we can use such a word in this context—means less than ever before.

Why? The People’s Republic, following founder Mao Zedong, has been ruled by three leaders, each weaker than his predecessor. So, knowing the top leader is not such an advantage.

Take Hu Jintao, the current supremo, for instance. He is constrained by the eight other members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and it is said he can make policy by himself only on one issue, Tibet, because he was Party secretary there during his rise to power. 

Hu is certainly more influential than the other Standing Committee members, but, unless the issue concerns Tibetans, he must inform, consult, negotiate, cajole, and persuade his eight colleagues before he can act.

Xi Jinping will be even weaker than Hu, especially for the first two years or so after he takes over, when he will be busy consolidating his position as head of the Party. Yet Xi will face one additional problem: the Chinese regime is splintering. 

For one thing, as civilian factions in Beijing squabble and as central authority erodes, a relatively cohesive military is accumulating influence over budgets, politics, and external policies. Therefore, not only will China’s leaders change, but the nature of the regime itself is changing as well.

Moreover, at the moment there are especially worrisome developments inside the Communist Party. Wang Lijun, recently the top cop in the western city of Chongqing, apparently tried to defect to the U.S. last Monday. 

He spent about a day inside the American consulate in Chengdu, which was ringed by hundreds of security troops sent by Chongqing’s Party boss Bo Xilai across provincial lines to capture Wang, once his trusted assistant.

Wang evidently made his asylum request in return for turning over sensitive documents about his old boss or his boss’s wife. According to the State Department, he left consulate grounds “of his own volition.” If anything, it looks like Washington rejected his asylum request. In any event, Wang is now believed to be in the custody of state security officials in Beijing.

Wang made his name in Chongqing by arresting about 6,000 triad gangsters, corrupt officials, and others at the behest of Bo, who did not hide his ambitions to win a seat on the Standing Committee. Wang’s tough law enforcement, along with Bo’s political maneuverings, threatened senior Beijing leaders. 

Some in China are whispering that Hu Jintao himself had a hand in the extraordinary events of last week, and if that is true, then Xi Jinping is in trouble as he has not been a favorite of Mr. Hu.

Every time a new Chinese leader arrives on the scene, there is great hope in the West that he will be better than his predecessor. With Xi, analysts are pointing out that his daughter goes to Harvard, that his first wife lives in England, and that he likes Hollywood movies about World War II

Yet whatever he may personally think, he will be constrained by the rigid system in which he must act and the factionalism that is undermining his role in Beijing. 

In short, the nature of the system he will nominally lead will dictate how he will act.

The best thing Washington can do Tuesday is show strength, resolve, and consistency. That, far more than friendship, is what will impress ruthlessly pragmatic Chinese leaders like Vice President Xi.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China" and a columnist for The Daily. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang. 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.