Chinese President Xi Jinping is in San Francisco for the week-long Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit, where he will have a much-anticipated face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden. He was greeted by hundreds of protesters as well as a crowd of supporters.
As the top leaders of two superpowers were scheduled to meet on November 15, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, with some sharing messages of hope about mending China-US relations and others airing grievances about China's human rights track record. Anna Kwok, the Executive Director of Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, one of the protest organizers said:
We will never give up. pic.twitter.com/8CpoMbVP9d
— Anna Kwok 郭鳳儀 (@AnnaKwokFY) November 15, 2023
Most of the protesters are victims of China's repressive policy against political dissidents such as Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, members of religious groups that have been repressed in China, like Falungong, and ethnic minorities from Tibet and Xinjiang.
Their rage is best reflected by the following poster one protester held outside Xi Jinping’s hotel on November 14:
— Sophie Mak (@SophieMak1) November 14, 2023
China has been accused of coordinating a genocide toward its ethnic minority groups, particularly Uyghurs — a Muslim ethnic group from China's Xinjiang region. Since 2017, an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs have been locked up in internment camps in the name of the people's war against terrorism and extremism. In recent years, measures of cultural erasure and forced assimilation have also been extended to Tibet, which is now written as Xizang in English in China.
In fact, Tibetan diaspora communities were by far the most visible throughout the protest. On November 11, before the APEC Summit began, the Tibetan diaspora group Students for a Free Tibet hung a banner on top of the venue:
JUST NOW—3 Tibetan youth activists drop a banner on the Moscone Center where the APEC Summit will start in <24hrs
Xi can’t hide from the countless people united against his authoritarian regime
Generations of Tibetans will always resist his dictatorship until Tibet is free. pic.twitter.com/SH0O12MKDl
— Students for a Free Tibet (@SFTHQ) November 10, 2023
A Human Rights Watch's statement has explained the purpose of the anti-Xi Jinping protest in more detail (via the group’s former executive director Kenneth Roth):
The Chinese government won't stop its horrendous crimes in Xinjiang and Tibet, intensifying repression across China, and dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong unless it faces sustained public pressure. Government leaders at APEC need to press Xi Jinping. https://t.co/azj9VCdGwc pic.twitter.com/seMFgtZzRj
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) November 12, 2023
At the same time, the Chinese Consulate also mobilized Chinese students and alumni groups based in the Bay Area to welcome the Chinese President at the San Francisco airport, meeting venues, and hotels, according to leaked messages via teacher Li on X (formerly Twitter).
Xi Jinping landed at San Francisco airport on November 14 for his first US trip in six years. The welcoming crowd outnumbered the protesting crowd:
The scene outside San Francisco airport, where Xi Jinping is due to arrive: #Uyghurs #Tibetans & #HongKongers protesting; & hundreds of pro-CCP Chinese supporting, apparently recruited from nearby US universities by the Chinese consulate.
video from @USHKersClub pic.twitter.com/9utA9EplIl
— Hong Kong Democracy Council (@hkdc_us) November 14, 2023
Outside the Chinese president’s hotel, the San Francisco police had to separate the two groups to prevent conflicts and fights:
Chinese President Xi Jinping, escorted by a motorcade, arrived today at the St. Regis hotel where he will be staying during the week of APEC. Supporters and opponents of Xi can be seen in the background. pic.twitter.com/GZmQhT1cPu
— The San Francisco Standard (@sfstandard) November 14, 2023
But ahead of Xi and Biden's meeting, clashes between the welcoming and protesting crowds became more frequent:
Police are having trouble controlling the massive crowd on Market and Third Streets.
Muni is rerouting the inbound 30 and 45 buses.
— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) November 15, 2023
Amid escalating trade war and geo-political tensions between the US and China, most observers did not anticipate that the meeting would bring a U-turn to the two superpowers’ diplomatic relations.
The US government expects that the meeting would help establish a mechanism for managing distrust between the two countries. A major goal is to re-establish military-to-military communication and crack down on the trafficking of fentanyl into the US.
China has not revealed its public agenda, but Hu Xijin, a top commentator from the state-owned Global Times, listed three key concerns on Weibo:
First is the Taiwan issue. Wang Yi mentioned during his Washington visit last month that the largest threat to the stability in the Taiwan Strait was ‘Taiwan independence,’ which was also the biggest challenge in Sino-American relations. The second concern is the US's escalating suppression of China’s advanced technology corporations through its ban on semiconductor technology. Such a move is a de facto blockage of China from the production chain. Third is the US’s public incitement of the Philippines and other countries in the South China Sea in provoking China. This poses threats to China’s isles in the region.
Some have foreseen that China would also take the opportunity to woo foreign investors amid a sharp decline in foreign investment:
Warm Welcome. Hundreds of people including the CEOs of major American firms are expected to attend a dinner where President Xi Jinping will be the guest of honor when he visits San Francisco for the APEC summit this month. 3/10https://t.co/7E7A0hDmP5
— Rebecca Choong Wilkins 钟碧琪 (@RChoongWilkins) November 10, 2023
China expert Miles Yu, however, sees Xi Jinping's visit as a move to fix his “credibility crisis” back home by using the international stage to promote himself as a global leader:
Xi’s San Franscico rendezvous could also allow him to promote his own domestic image as a global guarantor of stability. […] positioning him as the global head of a “community of common destiny for all mankind.” He no doubt views an international forum such as the APEC Summit as a golden opportunity for the CCP’s self-promotion.
His observation is consistent with the manipulated sentiment on Weibo as popular anti-US opinions were censored and replaced by positive comments and sentiments ahead of the top-level meeting, as pointed out by Manya Koetse from What’s on Weibo:
Many of these optimistic sentiments stem from a response to an op-ed published by People’s Daily. The op-ed argues that maintaining stable relations between the US and China, fostering peaceful coexistence, is crucial for global future and world peace.