By JEREMY PAGE in Beijing and BRIAN SPEGELE in Chengdu, China
The two men expected to take charge of China starting next year took tentative steps into the international spotlight over the past week, offering tantalizing glimpses of how their generation of Communist Party leaders might differ from the current one.
Vice President Xi Jinping already unofficially anointed as the next party chief and Chinese president met several times with his visiting U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden. The two shared tea, as well as an informal dinner in a restaurant in the western city of Chengdu, on Sunday, the final full day of the American vice president's visit.
Meanwhile Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the front-runner to become premier, burnished his credentials by showing off his English-language skills for the first time in a speech during a high-profile visit to Hong Kong.
Messrs. Xi and Li stuck close to the party line in the two highly choreographed episodes, which analysts and diplomats said were designed to raise their profiles ahead of a once-a-decade leadership change, with current leaders due to retire from their party posts next year and their government posts in 2013.
Even so, the performances hinted at a slightly more open and worldly leadership style, according to some of the many foreign officials, academics and investors scrutinizing the pair for the slightest signals of what change they might bring at the helm of the world's second-largest economy after the U.S.
Mr. Xi's performance was of particular interest to U.S. officials, as he had never spent so much time with a senior U.S. figure as he did with Mr. Biden, and isn't due to make his first official trip to the U.S. until next year.
Senior U.S. officials said Mr. Xi, 58 years old, demonstrated an acute interest in U.S. politics this week, asking for details about horse-trading behind the recent deal on raising the government debt limit. Mr. Xi's first meeting last week with Mr. Biden ran 45 minutes over schedule, officials said.
"He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to convey, very strategic in his approach, quite confident in his interaction with his colleagues," said one senior Obama administration official, adding that Mr. Xi "very clearly relished the chance to sit down, frankly, with a global peer."
The same official said "there was substantial agreement almost in terms of precise language" between the two vice presidents "that the United States is going to be a dominant power economically, politically, strategically in the Asia-Pacific region and globally well into the 21st century."
On Sunday, Messrs. Xi and Biden broke with diplomatic precedent by traveling together to Dujiangyan city, in one of the areas hardest hit by an earthquake in the western province of Sichuan in 2008.
As they chatted Sunday afternoon on a bridge overlooking a river, they discussed the importance of communicating with ordinary citizens. Mr. Xi described how in his earlier leadership roles, which included stints running several provinces, he traveled to the countryside to meet villagers each year.
Another senior U.S. official said: "On one level, you would think these guys have nothing in common, but I think what they found is there are a lot of commonalities."
Mr. Xi has previously sent mixed signals about the U.S. In a speech in Mexico in 2009, he lambasted "foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country." On the other hand, a U.S. diplomatic cable published last year by the WikiLeaks website described Mr. Xi telling the U.S. ambassador in Beijing that he liked Hollywood movies about World War II.
U.S. officials sought to play down the idea that China needed reassuring about its U.S. dollar assets, saying Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders had all expressed confidence in the U.S. economy.
Chinese leaders were indeed restrained in their public comments, with Mr. Xi telling a meeting in Beijing of American and Chinese business leaders on Friday that the U.S. economy is "highly resilient. "But the state-run Xinhua news agency kept up the searing criticism of U.S. economic policy that it began after Standard & Poor's downgraded U.S. government debt on Aug. 5.
Xinhua said in a commentary that Mr. Biden who is due to leave China Monday had repeatedly told Chinese leaders and students that its U.S. dollars assets were safe.
"Yet that is far from enough to soothe the concerns of China and the world as concrete actions are badly needed from the United States to honor its promises," the commentary said. It urged Washington to "end its excessive reliance on overseas borrowing, make substantial reforms and cuts to its bloated entitlement programs, reduce budget deficits and restructure its economy."
The commentary also linked the debt issue to bilateral disputes over questions such as market access, human rights and what China calls its "core interests" Taiwan and Tibet."Moreover, to win China's confidence, the Unites States also has to view the path of development objectively and rationally, and respect China's core interests concerning national sovereignty and territorial integrity," it said.
U.S. officials say they believe that Mr. Xi, whose daughter is studying at Harvard University, is committed to maintaining good relations with the U.S. They remain concerned, however, that he and other civilian leaders may not play as great a role in formulating foreign policy as other powerful interest groups, especially the military.
With maneuvering between these interest groups intensifying ahead of the leadership change, Mr. Li's visit to Hong Kong was seen as a deliberate attempt to thrust him further into the spotlight at the same time as Mr. Xi, analysts said.
Mr. Li, 56, garnered particular attention especially among Chinese Internet users when he broke into English at the end of a speech Thursday at the University of Hong Kong, something rarely attempted by current leaders.
Since his promotion with Mr. Xi in 2007 to the party's nine-man Politburo Standing Committee, its top decision-making body, Mr. Li has been considered the front-runner to take over from Premier Wen Jiabao, with whom he is considered close, in 2013.
Recently, however, powerful voices especially in the finance industry have suggested that Wang Qishan, another vice premier responsible for finance, would be a stronger, more effective premier.
"There are a lot of people who don't want another Wen Jiabao," said one person who discussed the matter recently with senior party figures.
Corrections & Amplifications
China's Vice President is Xi Jinping. Photo captions in a previous version of this article misspelled his name.
Also, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in meetings with Chinese Vice President Xi, "mentioned specifically his strong view that the United States would continue to play a role as, as he put it, a resident Pacific power," according to a senior Obama administration official. A previous version of this article incorrectly said the official was describing Mr. Xi's comments.