Digital Diplomacy

In China, the Tech Industry Does What Washington Can't

Chinese President Xi Jinping listens to U.S. President Barack Obama during a joint news conference at the White House, September 25, 2015. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Washington’s reputation for getting things done has suffered so much lately that it seems as though Chinese President Xi Jinping is seeking more efficient but less official channels to make his concerns heard. During his official state visit to the United States late last month, his first stop was not the White House but Seattle. There, he wooed top U.S. technology executives and assured them that China was committed to cybersecurity and to fixing its slowing economy.

The order of Xi’s visits certainly raised eyebrows, but it was not altogether surprising. Between conflicts in the South China Sea, accusations of cyberattacks, and a deep history of differences over human rights, the United States and China have reached an impasse. Although Xi and Obama managed to eke out a cybersecurity pact at the summit’s end (albeit with questionable enforceability), the deal was only considered a great success because expectations for any sort of cooperation were almost nil.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at a U.S.-China business roundtable, comprised of U.S. and Chinese CEOs, in Seattle, Washington September 23, 2015. Elaine Thompson / Reuters

In fact, over the last few years, Washington has lost its touch in dealing with China. Instead, the U.S. tech community has come to fill the diplomacy vacuum and has made headway on certain economic and cybersecurity issues. The ability of non-state actors to affect foreign policy is certainly not new—it is a trend that began after World War II—but it does signal important changes in the future of U.S.-Chinese relations.  


Multinationals gained unprecedented power during the Cold War, and were even behind the rise and fall of regimes. In the 1950s, United Fruit Company successfully lobbied the U.S. government to overthrow Guatemala’s revolutionary government, which had enacted less favorable policies toward the firm than the previous government. The Iranian coup of 1953 was a joint British and U.S. effort to protect the interests of British Petroleum. In

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