Mr. Xi goes to L.A.: A Lin-Lin diplomatic overture?

By Damien Ma

If you're following all things China, the two memes trending for the last week or so have been the pre-trip musings on Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's American tour and the Jeremy Lin show. What connects the two? Well, basketball.   

After spending barely two days in Washington, Xi will travel to L.A. to hobnob with local politicians and businesspeople. In his down time, he is supposed to take in a Lakers game. Incidentally, Lin and his Knicks defeated the Lakers last week, when the Harvard grad and overnight NBA sensation put up a career-high 38 points that dazzled even Kobe Bryant. That Lin, a Chinese-American, and Xi, the Chinese leader who will preside over the NBA's largest potential market, are cementing U.S.-China links on the court should make NBA Commissioner David Stern smile. After a rough start to the season and with Chinese fans seeking a post-Yao Ming player to champion, "Lin-sanity" may be just the spark needed to revive the flagging franchise on both sides of the Pacific.

For his part, Xi's appearance at a Lakers game is a feat of public diplomacy that will draw comparisons to Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's memorable first visit to the U.S. On that trip, Deng donned a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo and tried out a simulator in NASA's Houston headquarters. Whether Xi is deliberately attempting to mimic Deng's charm offensive is anyone's guess. But such an effort will not go unnoticed by the American public, which tends to favor leaders with a touch of the "common man." This may be just what Xi has in mind: to project an image of affability and ease.

To be sure, optics matter a great deal on these occasions, especially when a Chinese official is thrown into the unrelenting punditry of the American media. President Hu Jintao always seemed maladjusted in the freewheeling environment, appearing wooden and somewhat nervous during his public appearances with President Barack Obama last year. Xi, in his subtle way, may also be trying to draw a contrast between himself and China's current leadership, therefore. He will have to be careful not to outshine Hu before he is fully in command, however, or to appear too enthusiastic about American culture.

Either way, Xi's likely attendance at the Staples Center is a small step forward for soft power diplomacy that, if continued, should help to reduce mutual suspicions and overcome the perception that the Chinese political system is opaque. But it will still be a long time before China's top leaders are truly comfortable with the U.S. media and can speak off script. When a Chinese presidential aspirant is bold enough to make an appearance on Jon Stewart, well, then we'll be looking at truly different U.S.-China relations.         

Damien Ma is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

Chris Chambers/Getty Images