Xi Travels to Central Asia, Will Meet Putin

welcome to foreign policyBrief of China.

This week’s highlight: Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Kazakhstan on the first leg of a three-day trip, the COVID-19 lockdowns lead to shortage of food and medicineโ€”including in Xinjiang, i China and India make an advance on their disputed border.

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Xi embarks on a trip to Central Asia

Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on his first trip outside China’s borders since January 2020 on Wednesday, starting in Kazakhstan and then traveling to Uzbekistan for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit . Once a frequent global traveler, Xi has not left China since a visit to Myanmar shortly before Beijing began locking down the country in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The leader had even avoided Hong Kong until June.

The trip to Central Asia was confirmed earlier this week, ending earlier claims that Saudi Arabia or Southeast Asia would be Xi’s first overseas destination. His transformation into a domestic man appears to be motivated by a mix of concerns about both COVID-19 and China’s domestic political situation.

In the early days of the pandemic, Xi and other top political leaders stayed behind a COVID-19 cordon, and Beijing has had some of China’s toughest quarantine rules. But anxiety about power struggles at home may also have played a role in Xi’s plans, with the president reluctant to leave the country for fear of rivals moving against him. China’s multiple crises, from the current limitations of the zero-covid policy to a stagnant economy, likely made Xi’s fears more acute.

The current trip therefore signals strong confidence ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opening on October 16, when Xi will almost certainly confirm his third term as leader after changing the constitution in 2018 and break with the precedent of his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

The SCO summit will also see Xi meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time this year. At the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two leaders promised a “boundless” friendship between Russia and China. Although China has not officially endorsed the invasion and maintains diplomatic relations with Ukraine, its official and media rhetoric is pro-Russian, and dissenting voices have been censored inside China.

In a visit to Russia before Xi’s trip, China’s third-ranking leader Li Zhanshu praised Russia’s “important choice” under an alleged threat from NATO, which follows Chinese propaganda. At the same time, Chinese institutions have largely cooperated with sanctions on Russia, although the government has condemned them. There is little sign of the Chinese material support for the war that some analysts feared. Amid Russia’s recent military mishaps, Xi’s conversation with Putin may be somewhat strained, though still accompanied by a shared anti-Western sentiment.

However, the SCO summit is more about building China close ties with their Central Asian neighbors. Beijing has invested a lot of time and energy in the region, although it remains more popular with the countries’ leaders than with their publics. The SCO grew in part as a reaction to the so-called color revolutions of the 2000s, which left Central Asian autocrats fearful and China convinced that the United States was behind every plot. (It’s hard to tell how much of these claims are propaganda versus sincere belief, but my private conversations with Chinese officials suggest that the belief is largely sincere.)

One of the main components of the SCO are joint military exercises, known as “peace missions”, supposedly anti-terrorist exercises, which in practice look like rehearsals for suppressing popular revolt with foreign military force, as Russia did in Kazakhstan in January. While Central Asian autocrats may want a Russian or Chinese guarantee of their power, this tactic creates fear among the public, who see the arrival of foreign military forces as a threat from new imperialism.

But Xi’s trip to Kazakhstan has already made an implicit check on Russia’s imperial ambitions, with Xi promising that “no matter how much the international situation changes, we will continue to provide resolute support to Kazakhstan.” Despite Russia’s aid this year, Kazakhstan has effectively supported Ukraine in the war, refusing to condone the invasion and largely allowing strong public condemnations of Russia. This has drawn the ire of Russian nationalists, who have suggested Kazakhstan should be next, and a quickly deleted message from Dmitri Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, questioning Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.

An exhausted and overstretched Russia is unlikely to make any serious threats against Kazakhstan, but Xi’s words may be welcome in a region accustomed to playing great powers against each other.

FP LIVE: Register to watch a 30-minute live discussion with the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday, September 15 at 9 a.m. EDT on the war in Ukraine and how NATO member states can put pressure on Russia.

Zero-Covid nightmare. More than 300 million people are now under full or partial lockdown in China as officials struggle to contain another round of outbreaks under the zero-COVID policy. The National Health Commission has confirmed more than 5,000 cases in the country, but there is little chance of a change in policy until after the Party Congress next month, and given winter spikes, it seems unlikely until next spring at the earliest.

As with the two-month blockade of Shanghai earlier this year, stories of food and medicine shortages in China have spread online. The shortage appears particularly acute in Xinjiang, where China has carried out a sweeping crackdown on Uyghurs, imprisoning hundreds of thousands of them. Yili (or Ili) Prefecture has been particularly hard hit, with reports of starvation that Uyghur activists attribute to Uyghur neglect in favor of Han Chinese residents.

Chinese propaganda and censorship networks have gone into overdrive to contain the story inside and outside of China. There have reportedly been orders to flood social media with positive posts about Yili. Internationally, China continues to work to counter the recent United Nations report on crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, which former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet was reluctant to release due to of Chinese pressure.

Royal relations. The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II last week sparked a flurry of positive stories on Chinese social media, dominating Weibo. That may not last: King Charles III has frequently criticized the CCP, boycotting events out of concern for human rights and religious freedom and meeting frequently with the Dalai Lama. (After the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, Charles also described China’s leaders as “horrible old waxworks”.)

In Hong Kong, mourning for the Queen takes on additional meaning. Although Britain’s failures to grant democracy to its former colony laid the groundwork for Chinese repression today, anti-CCP Hong Kongers are sometimes enthusiastic Anglophiles who attribute the colonial era giving them the independent legal system that Beijing has destroyed. (The UK has been the main destination for Hong Kongers fleeing China’s crackdown since 2019.) For many people, laying flowers outside the British consulate in Hong Kong has become a peculiar symbol of quiet resistance .

Border disengagement. Chinese and Indian forces have mutually disengaged from the Gogra-Hot Springs region, one of several points of friction between the two powers in disputed Ladakh, a major advance in their ongoing talks. The Himalayan border between China and India has been the site of repeated tensions that exploded into deadly violence in June 2020. China has downplayed reports of casualties from this conflict, while Indian soldiers who they died have become national martyrs.

The ill-defined nature of the border means that patrolling soldiers on both sides often believe they are in their own territory, leading to many small skirmishes. Beijing and New Delhi have held intense diplomatic and military talks for months to defuse the situation.

Doctors within borders. China has begun implementing new controls on foreign medical equipment, with a list of 315 items that must now be purchased from local suppliers. This is an important step, because many members of the Chinese elite, who often attend international clinics, still see foreign treatment and techniques as superior. Companies had seen Chinese health care as a booming market, particularly for medical devices, as the population ages and the country grows wealthier.

The controls pose a challenge for foreign suppliers, who can try to strike deals with local manufacturers, but could risk stealing intellectual property.

More meetings called to solve the economic crisis. The Chinese economic crisis continues, fueled by the government’s zero-covid policy and the collapse of the real estate market. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has quickly become the key man in solving the problem. This might represent new power for Li, but I suspect it means he can be blamed when solutions don’t work. On Monday, he organized another high-profile special meeting on “stabilizing the economy.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese public seems increasingly aware that real estate prices are being artificially held back to avoid disaster. Sales by the country’s top real estate developers fell nearly 40 percent in July, compared with a year earlier, but prices have fallen only slightly. The consensus among those I’ve spoken to is that people are waiting to buy until prices drop significantly.

Audit questions. A Hong Kong legal case may expose the poor quality standards and opaque business environment of audit work in China. Global auditing firm KPMG is being sued for $830 million over a negligent audit of China Medical Technologies, which collapsed in 2012 after its senior executives committed alleged fraud. Another failure that came after a bad audit in China: the delisting of Luckin Coffee in 2020 after inflating sales by more than $300 million.

Some audit firms unthinkingly accept the claims of Chinese companies without conducting on-the-ground investigations, and information that would be relatively easy to obtain in the West is often glossed over or unavailable in China. The United States and China recently reached a tentative agreement on auditing standards; US inspectors are in Hong Kong this week to see if China can comply with the deal.

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