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Chinese President Strikes Diplomatic Tone With American Tech Giants

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during his welcoming banquet

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during his welcoming banquet l in Seattle, Washington on September 22. MARK RALSTON / AFP via Getty Images

Top executives from America’s technology giants -– including Apple, Amazon and Microsoft –- met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Seattle on Wednesday, one stop in a weeklong tour framed by concerns over whether the two countries can cooperate in cyberspace.

Xi delivered his speech to a gathering of corporate leaders including Apple's Tim Cook, investor Warren Buffett, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Disney head Bob Iger, Boeing chief Dennis Muilenberg, and Mary Barra of General Motors.

"As our business ties deepen, it is only natural to see frictions and differences evolve of one kind or another,” Xi said, speaking through a translator. “I am convinced that as long as the two sides maintain candid and equal-footed communication consultation, we will be able to solve the problems.”

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Executives from major Chinese businesses like Alibaba and Tencent were also at the event.

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Chinese and American discussions concerning cooperation in cyberspace have taken place amid accusations of online espionage and censorship that have only heated up in the past year.

American officials have pointed to the Chinese as prime suspects in the hack on the Office of Personnel Management that snagged records on 22.1 million people, mostly current or former federal employees. Hackers in the country have also been blamed for attacks on targets as diverse as Penn State’s engineering school, Google and Lockheed Martin.

Seated beneath the flags of the U.S. and China, Xi said his government hopes "to see substantive steps by the U.S. to ease restrictions on exports to civilian high-tech items to China and create a level playing field for Chinese investment in the U.S."

He urged the business community gathered "to play your positive role and make this a reality."

Citing China's more than 600 million Internet users as an opportunity for American companies in China, the Chinese leader pointed to his country’s support of big American companies setting up headquarters and research centers in China.

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"China will open up still wider to the outside world. Without reform, there will be no driving force. Without opening up, there will be no progress,” Xi said.

Xi’s tone may have been optimistic, but American companies can't rely on assurances of openness or the protection of their intellectual property, according to Arthur Dong, professor of strategy and economics at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

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"On the part of the technology companies, they have to be very careful about this balance between access to the Chinese market and the increasing demand by Chinese policymakers that companies open up their systems and show them the inner workings of their software and devices," Dong told NBC News. "I think that's a very sensitive and problematic tradeoff."

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After the meeting, Xi crossed Seattle for a tour at a Boeing factory, where he sat in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 plane (made with Chinese-manufactured components).

"A lot is always said on these visits, but we have to step back after the visit and see if the words will translate into action," Dong said. "Often we are shut out of the Chinese marketplace or our entrance comes with many conditions, many of which are very unsatisfactory for American tech companies."

Xi will head to the White House for a much-anticipated meeting with President Obama later this week.