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Newsom has surprise meeting with Chinese president in Beijing

California Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. | Source: Office of the Governor of California via Associated Press

California Gov. Gavin Newsom had a surprise meeting with China's leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday after being warmly welcomed by other senior leaders in a display of friendliness that stands in sharp contrast to the dialogue between the United States and China in recent years.

The governor is on a weeklong tour of China, where he will push for climate cooperation. The Xi-Newsom meeting is another sign that Xi is likely to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November, which will draw President Joe Biden and other Pacific Rim leaders to the city. China has not formally confirmed his attendance.

Newsom's trip as governor is drawing attention as it comes after years of heightening tensions between the U.S. and China.

"I'm here in expectation, as you suggest, of turning the page, of renewing our friendship and reengaging (on) foundational and fundamental issues that will determine our collective faith in the future," Newsom said in brief opening remarks ahead of his meeting with Wang Yi, China's top diplomat earlier in the day.

Though Newsom is here to push a climate cooperation agenda, Chinese officials took the opportunity in welcome speeches ahead of the closed-door meetings to talk about U.S.-China relations, as Wang prepares to visit the U.S. on Thursday.

Newsom and Xi discussed ways to "accelerate our progress on climate in meaningful and substantive ways," the California governor said at a news conference, but did not mention more specifics.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. | Source: AP

An opinion piece penned by the Global Times, a nationalist Communist Party newspaper, said that among American officials who have visited China lately, Mr. Newsom has received “at least one of the highest levels of attention,” the New York Times reported.

“To be honest, Chinese people currently lack faith in Washington as a whole and have distrust toward some U.S. politicians,” the newspaper wrote. “However, the welcome for Governor Newsom’s visit is sincere and warm, as ‘it is always a pleasure to greet a friend from afar.’”

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Xi and Newsom Discuss Fentanyl Crisis

They also talked about fentanyl, a synthetic drug and leading killer of young people in the U.S., and China's role in combating the transnational shipping of precursor chemicals, Newsom said.

According to China's state broadcaster CCTV, Xi told Newsom: "I hope your visit will enhance mutual understanding between the two sides and play a positive role in expanding cooperation between China and California and promoting the healthy and stable development of Sino-U.S. relations."

Newsom is visiting Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and the provinces of Guangdong and Jiangsu. At a speech at Hong Kong University on Monday, he promised to continue to cooperate on climate change regardless of the outcome of the next U.S. presidential election.

He said he raised human rights issues with Wang and the two also discussed Taiwan, a sensitive topic for Beijing. China claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory.

"I expressed my support for the One-China policy … as well as our desire not to see independence," Newsom said, referring to the official U.S. policy that recognizes the Communist Party as the ruling government of China. Officially, the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan, but is its biggest unofficial ally.

Wang, the head of the Communist Party's office of foreign affairs, said he knows Newsom's trip attracted plenty of critics but that he viewed the trip positively.

"But I think time and facts will certainly prove that your visit to China is in line with California people's wishes and in line with the American people's interests and the expectations of the global society."

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Chinese Vice President Calls Newsom 'Old Friend'

Newsom also met Wednesday with Vice President Han Zheng, who greeted him with a wide smile and called him an "old friend." Han is a past member of the Politburo Standing Committee, an elite group of leaders within the party.

"The China-U.S. relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and the sub-national cooperation is an indispensable part to facilitate the sound and steady growth of China-U.S. relations," Han said. "I'm sure your weeklong trip will inject positive energy to the development of the China-U.S. relationship."

Newsom also met with the head of China's National Development and Reform Commission, a Cabinet-level agency responsible for economic policies. They signed a memorandum on deepening cooperation in environmental issues.

Governors of California, which has an economy larger than most countries, have a long history of climate collaboration with China. Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger also traveled to China to swap knowledge on reducing air pollution and emissions, and since leaving office, Brown has launched the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.