“You Must Be Kidding, Barack”

What Xi Jinping will say when Obama complains about Chinese hacking.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a press conference at the presidential house in San Jose, Calif., on June 3, 2013.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a press conference at the presidential house in San Jose, Calif., on June 3, 2013.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are meeting in Southern California on Friday afternoon for their first summit since Xi became China’s paramount leader. This two-day bilateral, as they’re called, is a big deal as far as international diplomacy goes: It’s the first chance for the leader of the world’s most powerful country to sit down and build a rapport with the leader of the world’s fastest-rising power. It’s not exactly Yalta, but it matters more than the short-sleeves dress code might suggest.

We’d like them to get along, or at the very least have enough bonhomie that they can talk about some of the thorniest problems without getting red in the face. And there is a reasonable hope that the two world leaders will connect. Xi is a much more relaxed, less buttoned-up Communist Party leader than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Xi seems more like a politician than party apparatchik. He looks you in the eye, has a firm handshake, and seems comfortable ad-libbing. His informal manner is even reflected in the setting for the summit: China’s new leader agreed to meet Obama at the Sunnylands Retreat in the Coloardo Desert rather than in some staid White House drawing room.*

One of the top items on the agenda is supposed to be Chinese cyberhacking. Washington has become increasingly agitated with Chinese authorities who are clearly behind the cybersnooping of American businesses, government agencies, and media companies. But the Obama administration’s complaint—no matter how justified—may sound a bit awkward coming 24 hours after the revelation of the massive surveillance operation allowing the National Security Agency to track people’s movements and communications by tapping into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook.

The White House wanted an unscripted dialogue between the two men. You can imagine the more freewheeling Xi taking advantage of it:

“So, let me get this straight, Barack. You’re mad at us for spying on American companies online while you’re stealing every single thing my people do on Microsoft, Google, Skype, and Yahoo? Really? Are you $%&# kidding me? … Or, maybe we can think about this differently? I know we are a police state and all, but we don’t have anything like this PRISM thing? Can you guys give us some pointers?”  

Read more on Slate about the NSA’s secret snooping programs.

Correction, June 7, 2013: The Sunnylands Retreat is in the Colorado Desert, not the Mojave Desert. (Return.)