It has been over 650 days since Chinese President Xi Jinping has been seen on the world stage outside his country. Since his visit to Myanmar on January 17, 2020, he has not met any leader in-person, attended any international event or visited any foreign country. As usual, his self-siege is shrouded in mystery.
In the last couple of months, with a lull in the coronavirus pandemic, world leaders are shedding their virtual personalities and touching elbows with fellow Presidents and Prime Ministers at in-person meetings. The two high level events in recent days were the G20 summit in Rome and the COP26 on climate change in Glasgow.
Delegations of European Union and several fora in Africa attended physical meetings. In Asia, Taliban-centric events, whether of the Moscow Format or the Iran-sponsored meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours met in-person.
President Xi did not represent China at any of these meetings. It is expected that this year’s summit meeting between him and US President Joe Biden may at best be a virtual meeting. The details of the summit were thrashed out at a six-hour meeting between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Politburo member and Xi confidant Yang Jiechi in Zurich early October.
It is not that Xi kept himself completely aloof. He did attend some virtual events and had conference calls with departing German chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of the UK Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.
His stamp is visible in the Chinese negotiations with the Taliban ever since the latter seized power in Afghanistan and sought out China’s hand of friendship in exchange for not allowing Uighur Muslim organisations to use Afghanistan as a base to foment trouble in China’s Xinjiang province. Chinese calls to the international community to recognise the Taliban government obviously have Xi’s backing. So do the near-reckless air sorties by the PLA aircraft close to the Taiwan defence zone.
On the face of it, the simple explanation for Xi’s absence outside China is the strict Covid-19 quarantine rules. Ever since Chinas shut itself off in January 2020, the government has spared no effort to save its leadership from the infection. As the President, Xi must have the toughest bubble. If he breaks the bubble, he would be open to criticism for breaking rules. On the other hand, the rules give him the best excuse not to travel at a time when, since last year, China has been facing flak from the world over the allegation of leaking the virus apart from mismanaging the initial outbreak and trying to cover up its mistakes. China has steadfastly denied the leak, initially rejected moves for a probe by a world body and later made it difficult for the body to get genuine information.
The ultimate irony about Xi’s absence is felt in the context of the US-China rivalry over superpower status. Around the time when China closed doors to the outside world to deal with the pamdemic in 2020, it was then US President Donald Trump who was making his country look inward with his “America First” policy. Now, as the world, including the US, is opening up, it is Xi who is sitting at home and China which is looking more and more inward.
President Biden did not spare President Xi for the latter’s absence at COP 26. He launched a broadside against his Chinese counterpart on two counts. One, by raising questions about China’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Two, questioning China’s claim to the global leadership mantle. He said: “We showed up. They didn’t show up … It is a gigantic issue and they just walked away. How do you do that and claim to have any leadership mantle?” Part of Biden’s ire was directed against another absentee, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Xi’s current stay-at-home policy is in stark contrast to his globe-trotting image in the past. He was going abroad frequently, trying to firm up China’s interests on the Belt and Road Initiative front or increasing China’s presence and role in the United Nations and allied organisations. His famous meeting with then Japanese emperor in Tokyo or sitting with Queen Elizabeth in a gilded carriage or the hyped-up visit to North Korea and his frequent India visits made for famous visuals.
His visits were seen as an extension of China’s projection of power as the world’s second largest economy. China dramatically tried to expand its areas of influence any which way it could under Xi’s leadership, mixing uncalled-for armed intrusions into Ladakh in India with a smooth-talking diplomatic initiative for economic agreements in Europe.
The home-stuck President, however, is said to be focusing on internal matters for the time being. There are several challenges he faces over the coming months. The most important is a suddenly weaking economy. Not helping its cause in any way is Xi’s “common prosperity” goal which of late has seen the state coming down heavily against the private sector and big money. Real estate, technology and private tuitions were among the sectors the worst hit. Secondly, the economic melt down has apparently fuelled political machinations by powerful critics of Xi including a few holding high offices. Three, China’s image, already dented by its bad human rights record, is trying to evade another beating by growing international pressure to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled to begin next February. Four, and this is a personal challenge to Xi himself, is the 20th Party Congress later in 2022. The President is preparing the ground for his third five-year term at the helm. For this, more than approbation from abroad what he needs is a country without social, political or economic unrest.