Skip to main content
Politics & Policy

China’s Xi Jinping dines in San Francisco with U.S. business leaders, hints at return of pandas

China's President Xi Jinping speaks to a crowd with a large American flag and Chinese flag on both sides of him.
China’s President Xi Jinping speaks at a dinner with business leaders during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. | Source: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Chinese President Xi Jinping had a busy Wednesday in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he met with U.S. President Joe Biden and finished the day by attending a highly watched dinner event with American political and business leaders to promote investment in China.

Xi, 70, started the day with a historic hourslong talk with Biden at the Filoli estate, about 30 miles south of San Francisco in Woodside. He then appeared at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Downtown San Francisco for the dinner event.

The soiree, organized by the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, came as China aims to reinvigorate the confidence of foreign investors amid concerns about an economic downturn. Tickets to the event cost $2,000 each.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Apple CEO Tim Cook were also at the event.

“Ladies and gentlemen, friends, it gives me great pleasure to meet with you, friends from across American society, in San Francisco to renew our friendship and strengthen our bond,” Xi said. 

He then recounted how his trip this week brought him full circle.

“My first visit to the United States in 1985 started from San Francisco, and this formed my first impression of this country,” he told the audience. “Today, I still keep a photo of me in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. This morning, President Biden pulled out this photo and showed it to me. I don’t know how he got it, but he showed it to me.”

China’s president Xi Jinping reflects on his first visit to the United States in 1985. | Courtesy National Committee on U.S.-China Relations | Source: Courtesy National Committee On U.S.-China Relations

Summarizing some of the outcomes of his meeting with Biden, Xi said China "sympathizes deeply with the American people" for the "sufferings" of Americans due to drugs such as fentanyl. He and Biden had agreed to set up a "working group" on drug abuse.

China is a producer of precursor chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl, often in Mexico.

China’s president Xi Jinping summarizes takeaways from his meeting with President Biden. | Courtesy National Committee on U.S.-China Relations | Source: Courtesy National Committee On U.S.-China Relations

A Return to Panda Diplomacy?

Xi said China was prepared to invite 50,000 "young Americans" to China on exchange and study programs over the next five years. Such programs have declined dramatically since the Covid pandemic.

China’s president Xi Jinping announces that he is prepared to invite 50,000 young Americans to participate in exchange and study programs in China. | Courtesy National Committee on U.S.-China Relations | Source: Courtesy National Committee on U.S.-China Relations

Xi also hinted that China may be willing to re-up its "panda diplomacy," a decadeslong initiative that saw China loan the rare animals to a number of U.S. zoos. Three giant pandas left their enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., this month, marking the end of more than five decades of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo.

"I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas and went to the zoo to see them off," Xi said.

China’s president Xi Jinping speaks about China's intention to increase its panda conservation efforts with the United States. | Courtesy National Committee on U.S.-China Relations | Source: Courtesy National Committee on U.S.-China Relations

"I also learned that the San Diego Zoo, and Californians, very much look forward to welcoming pandas back," Xi said. "Pandas have long been envoys of friendship. ... We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation and to do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen friendly ties between our peoples."

Xi's Rare Public Appearance

Xi’s outing at the Hyatt Regency may be one of his few "public" appearances during his U.S. trip as his speech at the APEC CEO Summit was canceled. However, the San Francisco Examiner published his planned speech on Thursday.

Attendees of Wednesday's dinner included nearly 400 business leaders and government officials, including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who delivered remarks before Xi addressed the audience. California State Treasurer Fiona Ma was also among those in attendance.

Outside the hotel, pro-China activists and anti-Chinese government protesters had a busy day, having gathered there since the early afternoon, hours before the Chinese president’s arrival. The two sides chanted slogans, blared Chinese songs and engaged in scuffles that were caught on video.

Han Li can be reached at