Xi Jinping, the president of China, will be in Seattle on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, meeting with U.S. tech companies and other business and government leaders before heading to Washington, D.C., for a high-profile state visit with President Obama on Thursday
In the short term, the biggest impact most of us will see is on traffic. The city’s transportation department issued a warning over the weekend about intermittent closures of freeways and other streets. But much more is at stake for the global economy, international relations, cybersecurity and the future of U.S. tech companies in the world’s most populous nation.
U.S. tech leaders will be striking a delicate balance during his visit, seeking to ensure long-term access to the lucrative Chinese market, while grappling with the government censorship and challenges with cyber attacks and intellectual property theft believed to emanate from China.
The backdrop is China’s economic turmoil, which is having ripple effects across the world’s markets. Here’s our FAQ about the visit, and the issues at stake.
Why is President Xi coming to Seattle? Apart from the concentration of tech companies here, Washington state exports more goods and services to China than does any other U.S. state — everything from planes and apples to software and coffee. A big part of the goal is to “show that this is what good U.S.-China relations might look like,” using Seattle as an example, University of Washington professor David Bachman tells the Seattle Times.
What will he do when he’s here? President Xi has a busy schedule, starting with a banquet on Tuesday night in downtown Seattle, where he’s expected to deliver a speech on U.S. China relations. During his visit, he’ll also tour Boeing’s plant in Everett, Wash., and visit Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash., a school that he visited on a previous trip to the U.S., in 1993.
Update: Xi is not having dinner with Bill Gates. Those earlier reports were incorrect.
In conjunction with Xi’s visit, a series of cooperation agreements are expected to be announced between Chinese state agencies and companies and government leaders and companies in Washington state.
But the big event for the tech industry is the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum, to be held on Wednesday at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond. The meeting will include remarks by Lu Wei, a.k.a. China’s “Internet czar.” Much of the meeting will be closed to the press, although there will be portions that are public. (GeekWire will be covering the event and other activities during Xi’s visit.)
Who will be there from the tech industry? In addition to Microsoft executives, Apple CEO Tim Cook has been invited and reportedly plans to attend, as does Alibaba CEO Jack Ma. Executives from companies including Facebook, IBM, Google and Uber have also been invited. Some of these sites, including Facebook and Google, are currently blocked from mainland China.
What will they discuss? Topics at the event are expected to include cloud computing/big data, the upcoming generation of Internet users, international cooperation and other issues.
Whether or not it’s discussed explicitly, one big issue looming over the event will be the pledge that China has reportedly asked U.S. tech companies to make to ensure their products are “secure and controllable.” The New York Times reports that industry groups are concerned this pledge “could be used to force companies to build so-called back doors — which allow third-party access to systems — provide encryption keys or even hand over source code.”
Human Rights Watch writes in an open letter to CEOs attending the event, “At a minimum, we urge that your companies publicly commit on this occasion not to enable government abuses of freedom of expression and privacy in China, as some Western companies have done in the past. Your firms’ robust criticisms of the US government’s mass surveillance practices set a standard that you should not lower for China.”
What’s next after Seattle? China and the U.S. are reportedly in talks for what’s being described as “the first arms control accord for cyberspace,” in which each country would commit not to use cyber attacks to strike the other’s infrastructure during times of peace. Depending on the progress of negotiations, that accord could become a centerpiece of President Xi’s visit with President Obama later in the week.
Yeah, yeah — so what about that traffic? The city warns, “Intermittent closures of freeways, regional arterials and downtown streets are expected. The flow of buses and cars in downtown Seattle and around the region will be disrupted.”
“Seattle is honored to host President Xi and his delegation during his visit to the United States,” says Mayor Ed Murray in a statement. “With an international visit of this stature and the accompanying federal security requirements, we want all travelers to be advised of the impacts to business as usual. Everyone needs to be patient, reevaluate their commute plans, add in extra travel time, and monitor traffic alerts for the latest information.”
Editor’s note: GeekWire reporter Taylor Soper will spend 10 days in China this November, covering the technology scene. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas.