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Tech Leaders From U.S., China Meet In Seattle, Can't Quite Connect


Yesterday, China's president, Xi Jinping, toured the Microsoft headquarters while visiting Seattle. And while he was checking out the Xbox, his top brass was meeting with American CEOs and politicians to talk about the Internet, how to keep building it and control it. NPR's Aarti Shahani got to attend one of those meetings and, she reports, a whole lot got lost in translation.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. We're going to start momentarily.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: At the Microsoft Campus, Building 33, U.S. and Chinese leaders are talking past each other. Wu Hequan, chairman of the Internet Society of China, offers a rosy outlook.


WU HEQUAN: (Through Interpreter) We have different cultures, but our ideals are the same.

SHAHANI: Dean Garfield, president of the U.S.-based Information Technology Industry Coalition, is definitely not so rosy in his remarks.


DEAN GARFIELD: The collective collaboration between the United States and China is, let's say, suboptimal.

SHAHANI: Over and over, the Chinese talk about the importance of trusting each other's intentions. The American side keeps sounding distrustful about how open China is or is not to U.S. companies about Chinese nepotism, about Chinese hackers. Again, Dean Garfield.


GARFIELD: If we're going to stick to our talking points and not address those issues, then why be here at all?

SHAHANI: They're here because, as participants put it, the U.S. made the Internet, and China is now its biggest market. The cybersecurity tsar of China, a man named Lu Wei, steps to the mic and gives an impassioned speech with some talking points and a parable - a very colorful parable.


LU WEI: (Through interpreter) Two men are on the same boat, and as they are sailing off, they encounter countless reefs they cannot see. This hardship brings them into a panic. They argue and blame each other.

SHAHANI: A thunderstorm hits. The waves get higher. To survive, they need to lower the sails. One man cannot do it alone.


LU: (Through interpreter) They face the same risk, so they stop all the quarreling. They work together to let down the sail. They arrive at dry land safely and become best friends.

SHAHANI: The Chinese burst into applause.


SHAHANI: The Americans, less so. When the session ends, delegates from the U.S. and China head into closed-door meetings. Media are not allowed, but two delegates agree to talk with NPR.

SPENCER RASCOFF: I think the American business community is a little bit skeptical.

SHAHANI: That's Spencer Rascoff, CEO of the online real estate company, He won't get into who said what, but his overall feeling is American companies aren't getting a fair break despite Chinese officials promising reforms.

RASCOFF: It's good to hear the Chinese government saying these things, but I'd like to see actions to back them up.

SHAHANI: Chinese delegate Zhou Hanhua, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences - he feels disappointed, too. The closed-door meetings were full of presentations, not real dialogue. He really wanted to ask his American counterparts...

ZHOU HANHUA: How to regulate the Internet, especially considering the social media. ISIS used the Internet as the platform to promote the extremist views.

SHAHANI: But Zhou's desire to control digital life couldn't be further from the American perspective. No matter the issue on the table, there's a deep cultural disconnect. If this summit is any indicator, it'll be hard for the U.S. and China to have the hard conversations. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Redmond, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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