A Rare Opportunity to See China’s Leader Up Close and (Sort of) Personal

As the most powerful Chinese leader in generations, Xi Jinping rarely bothers to glad-hand or to try charming a crowd. His public appearances in China are carefully crafted, with fawning cadres and adoring fans carefully positioned around him.

So when Mr. Xi landed in San Francisco this week to meet with President Biden, to try to stabilize a relationship with the United States that has been spiraling downward, it provided a rare opportunity to see the Chinese leader up close and, at times, less filtered than usual.

There were a few moments when Mr. Xi turned animated — or the closest he gets to it — like when a group of Iowans he had met in the 1980s came through the receiving line at a gala dinner in San Francisco on Wednesday night. Mr. Xi’s face lit up as he greeted the man who had driven him around rural Iowa, when Mr. Xi was a young party official from Hebei province hoping to glean insights into America’s agricultural technology.

Earlier, the Chinese leader had compared presidential limousines with Mr. Biden as they met on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. And he thanked Mr. Biden for reminding him that his wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous Chinese soprano and folk singer, has a birthday on Monday, as does Mr. Biden.

Mr. Xi said he had forgotten because he had been working so hard.

It was hardly an extraordinary performance for an ordinary politician, or even past Chinese leaders, but Mr. Xi’s appearance at the APEC summit was striking for one of the most self-contained Chinese leaders in decades, who reveals next to nothing about his personal life despite propaganda organs busily casting him as a man of the people.

The secrecy surrounding Mr. Xi has only grown more intense as he has concentrated his power by jailing and retiring political rivals and taking greater control of the civil government and the military.

Behind the scenes, during four hours of talks with Mr. Biden and an array of his national security and economic aides, Mr. Xi was typically controlled and careful, participants said. They reported that he spoke fluently on the topics that have divided Beijing and Washington but turned to his notes, and kept to script, when the subject turned to Ukraine or the turmoil in the Middle East.

None of what the Americans saw fundamentally changed their view of Mr. Xi — a Chinese leader with control over his emotions and an iron grip over his country. He did not don a cowboy hat the way Deng Xiaoping did in Texas in 1979, or come bearing a stuffed panda for a 2-year old, the way Jiang Zemin did at the same APEC summit, in Seattle, three decades ago. At that summit, Mr. Jiang took extensive questions from American reporters; Mr. Xi took none, leaving Mr. Biden to answer questions about the summit meeting alone.

Nonetheless, the summit was a moment Mr. Xi had prepared for over the past five months, after remaining largely out of sight to American officials, save for his one previous meeting with Mr. Biden, in Bali, last year. This summer he began receiving Americans, starting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

He invited Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, for a visit to commemorate Mr. Kissinger’s 100th birthday — and ran a five-hour-long celebration, clearly intended to send the message that the United States’ opening to China, which Mr. Kissinger helped engineer, represented a golden era that should be reproduced.

All of this has led to a tonal change in the relationship; when Mr. Xi repeated his line that the planet was big enough for both countries, he was signaling that the two military, economic and technological superpowers could give each other some space.

But there were also hints of how his fundamental views remain unchanged, especially about the United States. Mr. Biden talks about a constructive competition between the two countries, telling reporters that “my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable, so it doesn’t result in conflict, that’s what I’m all about.”

Mr. Xi has always rejected the concept of a managed competition between the two countries.

“The No. 1 question for us is, are we adversaries or partners?” Mr. Xi said. “This is the fundamental and overarching issue.”

But Mr. Xi’s words may be less important than the imagery.

After his summit with Mr. Biden, the 70-year-old Chinese leader attended the gala dinner in San Francisco with American business executives, who he hopes will help stem the flow of foreign companies moving their investments out of China.

Mr. Xi mingled with the attendees, including Elon Musk of Tesla (who stayed only for cocktails), Tim Cook of Apple and his former Iowa hosts.

After arriving, Mr. Xi stopped into a V.I.P. reception, then he and other top Chinese officials formed a receiving line in a hotel ballroom, where he shook hands and took pictures with guests.

For dinner, Mr. Xi sat at a long table near the head of the ballroom, next to Evan Greenberg, the chief executive of the Chubb Corporation, and Mark Casper, the chief executive of Thermo Fisher Scientific, both members of the China-focused groups that hosted the dinner.

“Xi practiced retail politics last night in ways that few Chinese leaders typically do,” said Ryan Hass, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution, who attended.

In his speech, Mr. Xi stuck mostly to friendly topics, comparing the U.S.-Chinese relationship to a tree that had “grown tall and strong,” and dangling the prospect of dispatching more giant pandas to California as “envoys of friendship.”

Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor at Cornell University, said Xi had spoken with equanimity and a touch of warmth, but the speech had a double edge: It invoked “the history of friendly ties between American and Chinese people to warn against treating China as an adversary,” she said.

The speech “felt like a bit of an outstretched hand,” Mr. Hass said, potentially reflecting the interest of Chinese leaders in rebuilding connections with the business community. “There were several hard-edged points in the places you would expect them, but the overall tone of the speech seemed designed to try to lower the temperature of tension in the relationship.”

The dinner itself was a polarizing affair, with critics of Mr. Xi saying it was shameful for American business leaders to spend up to $40,000 for a table at the event.

One attendee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the backlash said Mr. Xi appeared animated in conversation at his table. He also noted that Mr. Xi, who is not known for being jovial, smiled often. That is in contrast to former Chinese leaders like Jiang Zemin who had a penchant for showmanship, once playing a steel lap guitar at a dinner in Hawaii.

Olivia Wang contributed reporting.