Marco Ugarte / AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, wave upon their arrival in Mexico City on Tuesday. Xi was in Mexico for a three-day visit before heading to California to meet President Barack Obama.
BEIJING — When Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama meet Friday at Sunnylands, a desert retreat in California, the largely informal and unscripted summit is expected to be groundbreaking in U.S.-China relations. While previous official visits between Chinese and U.S. leaders have frequently been bogged down by stifling issues of protocol, they are meant to be largely absent this time.
In China, Xi's willingness to forgo the formality of a state visit is being interpreted as a sign of his confidence and a more relaxed style, which he's adopted since becoming head of state in March (he was selected head of the Communist Party, a more powerful job, in November) — a marked contrast to his rather stiff and wooden predecessor, Hu Jintao, whose handlers obsessed over every minutia of summit diplomacy.
The two leaders are expected to discuss a wide range of issues — from cyberspying to North Korea, with China looking to take credit for an apparent lowering of the rhetoric from Pyongyang — as well as territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Middle East, human rights and the global economy. With an open agenda, the talks could range anywhere — and may be dominated by cybersecurity issues.
But the goal of the two-day summit at the glamorous estate built by Walter H. Annenberg in Rancho Mirage is essentially about building what Chinese officials are describing as a "new type of great power relationship."
Glam first lady
Xi's more assertive and warm public attitude has been greatly aided by a glamorous and high-profile wife, Peng Liyuan.
First ladies have never been prominent in China, kept in the shadows if seen at all. But before Xi became the Communist Party leader, his wife, a folk singer, was probably more famous. Some have dubbed her the "Carla Bruni of the East.”
Her style and dress have become the talk of the media here and have sparked a frenzy online.
"As a woman to represent Chinese women, people do feel quite pleased," Angelica Cheung, editor-in-chief of Vogue China, told NBC News. "I feel that way, too. Her tastes, particularly her clothes, have really won her a lot of new fans."
Given the sensitivity around the wealth of China's elites, however, Peng seems to have shunned foreign luxury brands in favor of domestic designers. And China's censors have even been trying to contain discussion of her clothing on social media sites, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Reed Saxon / AP
The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, a conference center and desert garden adjacent to the Annenberg's Sunnylands mansion, that will host President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 7 and 8.
Over the last few days, the media in China have been full of Peng with her husband on a charm offensive through Mexico and the Caribbean — joining a steel band in Port of Spain as it struck up one of her signature folk tunes about happy farmers.
She's also being seen as the face of China's "soft power."
She'll be with Xi in California, and there has been much anticipation here about her first encounter with Michelle Obama, although that will have to wait, since America's first lady will be staying in Washington — a decision that's provoked some groaning in China's social media.
China on cybercrime: 'We're victims, too'
With cyberspying expected to be at the top of the agenda, China has been rolling out hitherto obscure, unheard of or possibly nonexistent organizations to show that they is not the perpetrator of cybercrime, but rather "we're victims, too."
On Thursday, it was the turn of one Qin An, described as a director of the China Institute of Cyberspace Strategy, who declared in the state-run Global Times that the two countries face a common threat.
Earlier, in the China Daily, Huang Chengqing, director of the rather awkwardly named National Emergency Response Technical Team/Coordination Center of China (CNCERT), declared that China has "mountains of data" on cyberattacks coming from the U.S.
While CNCERT appears to be a bona fide organization, it has operated largely in the shadows, does not have a listed address and did not respond to emailed requests for an interview.
And a trawl through English and Chinese search engines finds no reference to An's institute whatsoever — apart from the bylines for four articles he has written in the Global Times since April, one of them alleging a big U.S. conspiracy in cyberspace.
Phantoms or not, at least Beijing appears to have awakened to the seriousness with which Washington is taking the cybersecurity issue.
But while there is no doubting there's a world of budding hackers out there threatening us all, Beijing has largely ducked the central U.S. accusation: that China has an official, organized and concerted cyberspying strategy aimed (and apparently quite successful) at stealing U.S. military and commercial secrets.
In an interview with NBC News, Gregory Gilligan, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said more than a quarter of his members reported cyber-intrusion or other data theft.
"It's quite possible it's the tip of the iceberg," he said. And most of the targets are in areas identified by Beijing as strategically important industries.
Accusations of currency manipulation by China, which have dominated previous U.S.-China summits, have suddenly fallen far down on the agenda. The U.S. economy is on the rebound, and it's China that's now slowing.
Gilligan calls cybersecurity "the new currency," taking over from the currency issue as the biggest point of contention between the two countries. He's worried it might drown out a host of other concerns and issues — and he may well be right.