The streets outside the San Francisco hotel where Chinese leader Xi Jinping addressed a crowd of American business executives Wednesday night were chaotic, echoing with police sirens and the chants of protesters. A woman had strapped herself to a pole 25 feet in the air in front of the hotel, yelling “Free Tibet!” as a cold rain fell.
But inside the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency, the atmosphere was warm and friendly. More than 300 executives and officials listened attentively as Mr. Xi — the leader of a country often considered America’s greatest rival — spoke for over half an hour about an enduring friendship between China and the United States that could not be diminished by recent turmoil.
Mr. Xi spoke of pandas. He spoke of Ping-Pong. He spoke of Americans and Chinese working together during World War II to battle the Japanese. He addressed the tensions that have rocked U.S. and Chinese relations in the past year only briefly and obliquely, comparing the relationship to a giant ship that was trying to navigate through storms.
“The number one question for us is: are we adversaries, or partners?” Mr. Xi asked. Seeing the other side as a competitor, he said, would only lead to misinformed policy and unwanted results. “China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States.”
Among those who paid thousands of dollars to attend the dinner and hear Mr. Xi’s message were Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, Larry Fink of BlackRock, and Jerry Brown, the former governor of California. They mingled with executives from Boeing, Pfizer, Nike and FedEx. Elon Musk popped by during the cocktail hour to greet Mr. Xi, but departed before dinner began.
Mr. Xi’s tone was welcomed by many of those in attendance, who believe that more engagement between the United States and China will improve the lives of people in both countries, reduce misunderstandings and potentially even deter a war.
“I think it’s important Americans and Chinese are meeting again face to face,” John L. Holden, managing director for China of McLarty Associates, a consultancy, said as he queued outside the hotel. “This is not a magic bullet, but it is something that can provide possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
Mr. Xi’s positive tone, and the enthusiasm of some of the event’s attendees, struck a sharp contrast with much of the recent conversation in the United States about China, which has focused on potential economic and security threats.
Republican lawmakers have blasted President Biden for his “zombie engagement” with China. Recent polls have shown that Americans are more concerned about the rise of China than at any point since the end of the Cold War.
At a news conference Wednesday, Mr. Biden celebrated a successful meeting with Mr. Xi earlier that day, which had resulted in agreements to fight drug trafficking and increase communication between the countries’ militaries. But when asked if he still thought Mr. Xi was a dictator, Mr. Biden replied: “Well, look, he is.”
China has for decades been an attractive market for American businesses because of its size and growth, but the country’s slowing economy and increasingly authoritarian bent have been cooling the enthusiasm executives feel toward China.
Foreign companies say the Chinese government has been slowly squeezing them out in favor of local competitors. While some think Chinese leaders have been shaken by a recent drop-off in foreign investment in China and are motivated to mend ties, executives are still concerned about recent crackdowns in China on foreign business and strict regulations, including on how companies use Chinese data.
For companies that manufacture in China, supply chain disruptions during the pandemic also sent a strong message that firms should not rely on a single country for their goods, and kicked off a trend toward “de-risking.” Still, some American businesses are still making a lot of money in China.
“I don’t think that anybody thinks that one dinner, or one visit, or one conference is going to reverse all the hostility that has built up between the U.S. and China,” Michael Hart, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said in an interview on Tuesday. But he added that if Mr. Xi had a friendlier stance toward the United States, “that will hopefully mean a slightly more friendly operating environment toward U.S. business in China.”
In the ballroom, 34 tables were laid with roses and orchids. They were numbered 1 to 39, skipping any number with a four, which in Chinese sounds similar to death, as well as unlucky number 13. Guests chose between a coffee-crusted Black Angus steak and vegetable curry with jasmine rice and toasted pistachios.
Gina Raimondo, the U.S. secretary of commerce who spoke at the dinner, thanked Mr. Xi for a productive meeting earlier that day, where Chinese officials had met with Mr. Biden and his deputies.
“We all know that we have differences,” Ms. Raimondo said at the dinner. “I’m not going to pretend otherwise. That being said, President Biden has been very clear that while we compete with China and other countries, we do not seek conflict and we do not seek confrontation.”
“We want robust trade with China,” Ms. Raimondo said. She said that many of the people in attendance remained keenly interested in doing business in China. “I know that because many of you come to see me and tell me that,” she said, to laughter.
Mr. Xi, who has overseen China’s military modernization and increasingly robust projection of power abroad, emphasized China’s commitment to a rules-based international system, its efforts to eradicate poverty, and its peaceful nature. Mr. Xi also touted his personal connections to the United States, including the time he spent in Iowa in the 1980s and an old photo he said he keeps of himself in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“China has no intention to challenge the United States or unseat it,” he said.
Stephen A. Orlins, the president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, one of the groups sponsoring the event, said he was there when the committee hosted previous Chinese leaders in the United States — Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — and that all had projected a friendly demeanor. He recalled Mr. Deng famously donning a cowboy hat during a U.S. visit in 1979.
“When they stand in front of an American, they tend to be more constructive and pro-American. It’s just part of what happens,” Mr. Orlins said. “They’re not going to come to an event like this and put their thumb in the eye of us as the sponsors and the audience.”
Mr. Orlins’ group and the other organizer of the event, the U.S.-China Business Council, went through a logistical Olympics to set up the dinner. Because of security concerns, the organizers could not reveal the location until the day before, and guests received an invitation to an event with an unnamed “senior Chinese leader.”
Mr. Orlins said his group knew that Mr. Xi had attended every meeting of the international grouping known as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and concluded that he would do the same when the meeting occurred in San Francisco this week. So they extended an invitation nine months ago to host Mr. Xi.
Three or four weeks ago, Mr. Orlin said he was told that Mr. Xi’s presence was still uncertain, but that he should start preparations.
The Chinese protocol office peered over every attendee; they were extremely sensitive about security, especially since someone had crashed a sedan into the Chinese consulate in San Francisco just weeks before. The White House insisted that the dinner happen after Mr. Biden’s meeting with Mr. Xi Wednesday, so as not to upstage that event.
The groups had to hire copious security and staff, and even fly in translation equipment, since local supplies were already claimed by the Asia-Pacific conference. Even though far more people wanted to attend the event than there was capacity for, Mr. Orlin said the $40,000 the groups charged for some tables would only partially recoup the costs of the event.
Mr. Orlins said the Chinese had prepared three versions of a speech Mr. Xi could deliver that night. After Wednesday’s events with Mr. Biden, Mr. Xi had picked the friendliest one.