Tag Archives: Xi Jinping

The Great Neighbour Returns Home

Chinese President Xi Jinping seen at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 21, 2023. Photo credit: Xinhua/Xie Huanchi

THE MOST TELLING remark that President Xi Jinping made during his trip to Moscow may have been, ‘Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.’

The inevitability of the end of the American century is a recurrent theme of Xi’s, with the sometimes stated, sometimes unstated implication that China will replace the United States as the global hegemon.

Russia and China believe they share an interest in accelerating the decline of US-led Western power. Both accuse the West of responding with policies of ‘containment, encirclement and suppression’.

Xi’s state visit saw repeated assertions of his deepening friendship with his host, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. At one point, he called China and Russia ‘great neighbouring powers and comprehensive strategic partners’.

Undoubtedly, the visit strengthened formal ties between the two countries. Documents were signed on further economic cooperation and deepening the bilateral partnership.

Yet a relationship based on shared hostility to the West may be more a marriage of convenience than a deep friendship, and there are signs that the strengthening of bilateral ties is occurring in a way that makes Beijing the main beneficiary.

That is most evident in the economic relationship. China can sell Russia the goods it needs that the West has sanctioned, and as the West shuns Russian energy, China can buy it on the cheap.

Xi’s holding off on building the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline connecting the two countries, a priority for Putin, was a subtle sign of which party holds the leverage.

Any Western hopes that Xi might use his trip to broker peace in Ukraine, however slight to begin with, quickly evaporated. By the end, the message was that the West was prolonging the war by refusing to accept China’s peace plan.

Xi’s presentation of Beijing as a pragmatic peacemaker, the honest broker of world affairs, in contrast to the Washington warmonger, the flailing ideologue, will resonate with much of its intended audience, the Global South.

Yet, after Xi flew out of Moscow, leaving behind an invitation to Putin to revisit Beijing later this year, a new wave of Russian drone attacks hit Kyiv

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Mr Xi Goes To Moscow

THE EMPEROR DOES not usually travel to visit the vassal.

However, President Xi Jinping will go to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart and friend Vladimir Putin on Monday and Tuesday.

It will be his first visit to Russia since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shortly after the two leaders declared their partnership without limits when they met during the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022.

Yet the war has made it transparent that there are limits to the relationship, and they are becoming complex.

The visit will be widely seen as a show of support by Xi for Putin, a message that China stands by its friends aimed at the Global South as much as at the West.

However, the visit also promotes hopes that Xi can develop an exit strategy with Putin to end the fighting, although, to this Bystander, those hopes are not well-founded.

China has put forward a 12-point peace plan, largely dismissed in the West as providing a ceasefire during which Moscow can regroup and rearm. The proposal does not require Russian troops to leave occupied territory. It also requires the West to withdraw, leading Moscow and Kyiv to negotiate an end to the conflict, presumably mediated by Beijing.

Xi is expected to talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after he has met Putin. That may be the start of some shuttle diplomacy, but how much scope Xi has to pursue it is uncertain.

His biggest constraint is that any end to the war in Ukraine acceptable to the West will also require a new security architecture in Europe. While it would suit Xi to shape that to China’s advantage, it would be a monumental task that appears unachievable given the deteriorating state of China-US relations.

Putin’s surprise visit to the occupied Ukrainian port of Mariupol on Saturday suggests the Russian leader has no intention of backing down. The International Criminal Court issuing a warrant for his arrest gives him further incentive not to do so.

At this point, there is little basis for a negotiated end to the war. A protracted conflict seems inevitable, although the length of the kinetic phase of the war may be clearer once the spring surges are done. Yet they do not promise a decisive breakthrough for either side.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical sakes for Xi remain high. For as long as Washington cannot let Moscow win the war, China cannot afford for Moscow to lose it. That may be the one thing the imperial visit underlines.

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Xi And Biden Say The Right Things But Change Little

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with US President Joe Biden in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Li Xueren

THE MEETING BETWEEN Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia (seen int eh photo above) exceeded the low, very low expectations that had been set for it.

That is not to say that agreements of substance came out of it. They did not. Yet the right things were said on both sides so that the China-US relationship does not get any worse.

The ‘facts on the ground’ may yet prove to belie that. The meeting lasted some three hours, indicating the range of issues that divide the two powers — Taiwan, Ukraine, North Korea, Uighurs, Hong Kong. The list goes on.

That Biden was accompanied by his Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was another indication of how broad the range of economic, diplomatic and security areas in which the two countries are facing off has become.

The two sides’ readouts of the meeting make for illuminating comparisons. Most notably on the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

The US version said the two leaders agreed on the importance of not using nuclear weapons there, implying some divisions between China and Russia and that Biden had some leverage; the Chinese version said nothing on the matter.

However, separately, the Foreign Ministry says Beijing will increase, not decrease its relationship with Moscow. Yet, why wouldn’t it if a supply of needed raw materials is available at war-discounted prices? Undoubtedly, China would prefer peace to war, but a frozen conflict would be an acceptable status quo for it.

Xi also made it clear that Taiwan was China’s first red line. Biden restated that nothing had changed in regard to its One China policy, which is at odds with the increasingly supportive stance the United States is taking towards the island. When he gets home, Biden will be facing, in all likelihood, a Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2023 and 2024 that is likely to be even more hawkish on China than the outgoing one.

The one consequence of the meeting is that there will be more dialogue between the two sides at senior official level. That will not in itself improve the tenor of the bilateral relationship but it may keep it from deteriorating and encourage some baby steps in confidence-building.

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One Lingxiu To Rule Them All

Screengrab of President Xi Jinping attending 20th Congress of Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, October 2022

THE BOUNDARIES OF Party, government and state have always been blurred in China, as they are in any one-party state. President Xi Jinping has brought clarity in that he is indisputably the unifying core of all three and the seamless font of power.

The 20th Party Congress delivered Xi’s third term as general secretary and enshrined his thought in the Party’s constitution. The Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-man inner sanctum of power, now completely consists of close allies. There is not even a symbolic nod to the representation of any other faction.

The fiction that there was internal opposition to Xi centralising power in his own hands that would materialise during the Party Congress has been proved just that, a fiction.

The leading lights of non-Xi factions have been banished to retirement, early or otherwise, moves signalled by the earlier announcement of the composition of the new 205-member Central Committee, now dominated by Xi loyalists. The anti-corruption campaign had already culled or cowered more serious centres of opposition.

Premier Li Keqiang will leave the leadership altogether once his term ends in a few months. At 67, that would count as early retirement, and his exclusion from the Central Committee implies it was not voluntary. Vice-premier Hu Chunhua has been pushed off the Standing Committee and out of the 25-member Politburo altogether. Economy czar Liu He, central bank Governor Yi Gang and banking regulator Guo Shuqing, all well-regarded internationally and known economic reformers, will also quit the leadership, having hit the informal retirement age of 68 or up. Stepping down from present government positions will follow.

When the new Politburo Standing Committee walked out behind Xi for the first time, Li Qiang, 63, the Shanghai party chief and a long-standing ally of Xi’s, was first in line behind his leader. That suggests Li will take over from Li Keqiang as premier when the top government jobs are announced at the National People’s Congress in January. He will be the first person to occupy that post, which oversees the operation of government, without direct experience in central government. That may matter less now Xi has marginalised the role of the premiership by establishing steering committees under his direct control in the main policy areas. Li’s controversial and costly enforcement of zero-Covid in Shanghai has done him no harm with his leader.

The other five Xi consiglieres on the Standing Committee will be Zhao Leji, 65, the anti-corruption chief; Wang Huning, 67, the head of the party secretariat; Cai Qi, 66, Beijing party secretary; Ding Xuexiang, 60, Xi’s chief of staff and Li Xi, 66, the Guangdong party boss.

Another key elevation is that of He Lifeng to the broader Politburo. He is in charge of the country’s top planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which has steered economic policy in a more statist direction and will likely succeed Liu He as Xi’s top economic advisor. The two men go back a long way: He headed Xiamen’s finance department when Xi was the city’s vice-mayor.


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Hu Done It?

Screengrab of former President Hu Jintao being escorted out of the closing ceremony of 20th Party Congress, October 22, 2022.

THE UNINTENDED TENDS not to happen at Party Congresses. The speeches are perfectly scripted for specific interpretation. The applause is punctual and appropriately prolonged. The seating is a schematic of position and power.

Thus the escorted exit of former President Hu Jintao during the closing session raises more questions than it answers.

Only the final part of Hu’s departure was caught on camera. Who summoned the stewards, when and how is not known. The reaction of those on the podium does not suggest sudden trauma. That does not eliminate a medical explanation, the one being advanced by state media. Hu has looked frail through this Congress, and seemed disoriented when he was ushered out, although still capable of saying something to Xi Jinping that elicited a nod in response.

Whatever the reason, it will be remembered as a symbolic ushering out of Hu-era collective leadership by Xi’s centralization of power with him as the core.

If it was a political ploy, it seems unnecessary, or perhaps more saliently raises the question of its purpose. The election of Xi allies to the new 205-strong Central Committee and the notable absence of economic liberals such as retiring Premier Li Keqiang, a protege of Hu, and Wang Yang mops up any lingering passive resistance to Xi, whose anti-corruption campaign has already taken out the most dangerous enemies.

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Xi Jinping Previews His Continuing Leadership Of A Stronger China

China's leader Xi Jinping opens the 20th Party Congress in Beijing on Ocotber 16, 2022

IT WAS THE commitment to step up the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army that most struck this Bystander about Xi Jinping’s opening speech to the 20th Party Congress.

Xi said the Party would ‘work faster to modernise military theory, personnel and weapons’ and to enhance what he called the military’s strategic capabilities.

That will likely mean more ballistic missiles, advanced fighting ships and overseas outposts. China already has the second-largest military budget after the United States.

The PLA’s modernisation was to ‘safeguard China’s dignity and core interests’, Xi said, likely a specific reference to the country’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and the Himalayas as well as a general statement about China’s global standing.

The most prominent of these claims is over Taiwan, about which Xi said.

We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force. And we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.

That was an applause line, but not a departure from Beijing’s existing position. As for Hong Kong, China had restored order to chaos. Xi used the term governance for order, an indication of how he sees the role of domestic security as a key element of good governance.

Xi also said China would press ahead with its pursuit of technology self-reliance and development. That will be crucial to modernising the military now that the United States has doubled down on restrictions of US advanced technology to China, primarily to slow its military development.

There was no indication in Xi’s speech of any immediate easing of the zero-Covid policy, which he characterised to a fully masked hall of delegates as a ‘people’s war to stop the spread of the virus’, no matter that the people are getting war-weary.

Neither was there any mention of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Overall, there was nothing to indicate that Xi would not get his third term. Veiled references to having ‘removed serious hidden dangers in the Party’ only reinforce the impression that he is in complete control and ready for the next phase of asserting himself on China and China on the world.

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China Is Becoming The Big Brother In Its Friendship With Russia

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Forumlar Majmuasi Complex in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 15, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ju Peng

PRESIDENT XI JINPING and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have had their much-anticipated tete-a-tete on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand.

Like everyone else not in the room, this Bystander is scrambling for crumbs from the conversation. There is precious little of substance in the public reports of the meeting.

According to Xinhua, Xi told Putin that China is ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests. Other boilerplate text is available, although none that mentions Ukraine.

Unexpectedly Putin, before the meeting, acknowledged that China had (unspecified) questions and concerns over Ukraine but then picked up the pre-prepared script by thanking China for its ‘balanced position’ — a phrase we heard earlier in the week from the Kremlin — and saying that the US attempts to create a unipolar world would fail.

Both the Chinese and Russian readouts of the meeting mentioned Putin’s expression of support for the ‘One-China’ principle — the legerdemain Beijing and Washington devised for their relationship over Taiwan that Beijing now seems to be seeking to elevate into a universal principle.

However, Putin’s need to mention it points to how the balance of power in the Russia-China ‘no limits’ friendship is titling in Beijing’s favour. That is not to say that China is not offering Russia assistance, but it is becoming the ‘Big Brother’ and so gets first pick in setting the terms.

Those involve increasing flows of cut-price Russian energy eastward, but not so much by way of Chinese technology or investment going in the opposite direction, and certainly not any visible flows of military equipment or supplies.

If Putin had harboured any expectations of receiving an endorsement from Xi of his invasion of Ukraine — and the way the Kremlin has been rowing back from some fulsome comments about Chinese assistance suggests he did not — then meeting amid the disparate scrum of leaders attending the SCO summit gave Xi a perfect excuse not to offer one.

Meanwhile, Xi could get on with the task of deepening China’s infrastructure and energy ties to Central Asia, thus further chipping away at Russia’s historic sway in the region.

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Russia’s Fulsomeness Discomforts Its Firm Friend China

Li Zhanshu, chairman of China's National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok, Sept. 7, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua

MOSCOW HAS BEEN far more forthcoming about the help Russia is receiving from China than Beijing, and probably than Beijing would like.

News that President Xi Jinping would meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during the first day of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand on September 15-16, first came from the Russian side, as did statements that the two would discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine and Taiwan. Beijing has yet to confirm that the two men will meet one-to-one.

Beijing has tried to walk a fine line in public between fulfilling its commitments to its ‘no limits’ friendship with Moscow, declared when Putin visited Xi during February’s Beijing Winter Olympics, and opening itself to Western sanctions for aiding Russia’s Ukraine war.

In that light, the official Russian readout of the meeting last week between Russian lawmakers and Li Zhanshu, chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and the third most senior Party official (seen in the photo above with Putin), would have been received uncomfortably in Beijing.

This quoted Li as saying:

China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine…We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests, we are providing our assistance.

Chinese reports did not mention Ukraine.

Russia’s Tass news agency also quoted Li as telling Vyacheslav Volodin, his counterpart in the Russian Duma (parliament), during a separate meeting:

In the context of US sanctions imposed against you and against us, some of our joint areas of cooperation are indeed gradually becoming more sensitive, but I am convinced that we should not halt our cooperation just because we are afraid of sanctions.

This week, Moscow appears to have been trying hard to tone down its fulsomeness about the bilateral relationship. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said at a briefing in Moscow merely that Moscow values China’s ‘balanced approach’ to the Ukraine conflict.

This Bystander suspects that such carefully balanced rhetoric will be challenging to sustain in Samarkand as the two leaders put forth their alternative world order to challenge the United States.

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Xi and Putin To Meet In Samarkand

ACCORDING TO RUSSIAN reports, President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will meet for discussions during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand next week.

It will be their first in-person meeting since Putin attended the Beijing Winter Olympics in January ahead of his invasion of Ukraine.

The summit will also be the SCO’s first in-person get-together since before the pandemic. Russia’s ambassador to Beijing, Andrey Denisov, told the TASS news agency that:

I do not want to say that online summits are not full-fledged, but still, direct communication between leaders is a different quality of discussion. One way or another, there will be plenary sessions and various kinds of group meetings, and we are planning a serious, full-fledged meeting of our leaders with a detailed agenda, which we are now, in fact, working on with our Chinese partners.

By lighting on the SCO for his first official trip outside China in more than two years, Xi can avoid making it a direct visit to Russia while still making Putin the first important foreign leader he meets. He will also be able to signal the shifting geopolitical balances between East and West and offer a counterpoint in the SCO to the collation of like-minded democracies that the United States is orchestrating, with more success than Beijing might have expected.

Over the next ten days, we can expect a barrage of coordinated commentary from Chinese and Russian state media about the growing need for Moscow and Beijing to cooperate to safeguard and reform the international order against Washington’s efforts to reshape it to preserve its hegemony.

We can also expect a sub-narrative intended for domestic Chinese consumption on the ineffectiveness of Western economic sanctions. Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and China’s third most senior leader, set the tone when he spoke at the Seventh Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Wednesday. Li claimed that the harsh sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries had not defeated Russia’s economy and praised its ‘stability and resilence’, which he attributed to Putin’s leadership.

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Vaccination Will Not Eradicate China’s Zero Covid Policy

Map showing biweekly confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people, Jul 23,
2022; Source: Our World in Data

PRESIDENT XI JINPING is far from the first world leader to have a well-publicised exemplary vaccination against Covid-19.

Yet, the remarks by Zeng Yixin, deputy head of the National Health Commission, that the top leadership have all been vaccinated with domestically produced Covid vaccines is notable on several counts.

First, information connected to senior officials’ health is customarily tightly held.

Secondly, Xi’s doubling down on ‘zero-Covid’ is China’s signature response to the pandemic in contrast to most of the world’s acceptance of endemic Covid, trusting a vaccinated population will keep severe infection and mortalities at low rates. Attempting to eradicate Covid through the zero-Covid policy carries high costs, socially from the mass testing, strict quarantine rules and local lockdowns, and economically from the disruption to commerce and manufacturing lockdowns cause.

China’s Covid mortality rate is minuscule compared to other countries, but, until recently, so were its vaccination rates, especially among the vulnerable elderly. These are now officially up to 90% (share of the population that has been double jabbed). However, Sinovac, China’s inactivated-virus vaccine, does not reach the same level of effectiveness as the mRNA vaccines used in the West until three doses, which may explain the timing of Zeng’s announcement about Xi. China’s mRNA vaccine, ArCoV, is in trials.

However, it will reinforce speculation in the West that Beijing is preparing to drop its zero-Covid policy. That seems unlikely if only because Xi’s endorsement has made the policy a political imperative rather than an issue of public health.

The Party has also been using low Covid mortality and case rates as evidence that China’s political system is superior to liberal democracy, a key pillar of its argument for its legitimacy. It would take near-universal vaccination with an mRNA vaccine to reduce mortality and severe infection to sustain that narrative in place of zero Covid.

That is many, many months off. Cai Qi, the Beijing Party Secretary, recently said his city would uphold zero Covid for the next five years.

Arguing that vaccination levels and treatment capabilities have reached a level at which it was no longer necessary to eliminate the virus through zero Covid would also be challenging. The Party’s propagandists would need to find a uniquely Chinese spin on a policy widely adopted by other countries.

Minimising the economic damage of zero Covid is gaining policy attention, especially as headwinds increasingly batter the economy. Dynamic zero-Covid means eradicating new local outbreaks by removing infected cases to isolation centres. Lockdowns are becoming more targeted and quarantine periods shorter. The capital, for example, has managed to avoid the lengthy citywide lockdown that afflicted Shanghai from late March to early June.

However, zero-Covid will remain in place for at least the rest of this year, well into next, and, potentially, well beyond.


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