Chinese President Xi Jinping, with an iron hand image, is hiding away from the world due to domestic troubles such as a waning economy, inner party dissidence, or even ill health, analysts have concluded.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially announced last week, ending all speculations, that Xi will not be attending the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, later this week. He will also not attend the ASEAN-East Asia Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, next week.
Some commentators, particularly those who oppose India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, see Xi’s absence from the most significant diplomatic event of the former’s second tenure as “a snub.”
Other experts on China have dismissed this suggestion of a snub and attributed Xi’s decision to avoid the two significant events, where his presence could have mattered most to Beijing, to domestic troubles and ill health.
One reason why some commentators see this as an insult to Modi is that the Indian prime minister conveyed some strong Indian sentiments over the India-China border dispute to Xi at their limited interaction on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit late last month, going to the extent of dismissing the latter’s suggestion that the border dispute should be kept aside to forge stronger relationship on other matters such as business ties.
Modi told Xi in South Africa that the bilateral relations between India and China cannot be expected unless the border stays peaceful and there is mutual respect for the Line of Actual Control (LAC), with no military maneuvers that derail the status quo pre-April 2020 positions of troops.
Advantage India At G20
In an analysis, Jayadeva Ranade, a longtime China watcher and currently a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, noted that Xi had already signaled on the opening day of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress in October last that relations with India would not improve. Xi not attending the G20 would imply that India must prepare for border tensions, punctuated with occasional clashes between troops on the LAC.
Ranade also noted that Xi’s absence and his Premier Li Qiang stepping in for him would mean China would lose being at the high table and giving direction to discussions at G20.
“India will proceed with the summit as planned and, dictated by protocol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who will deputize for Xi Jinping, will perhaps not find as prominent a place,” Ranade noted.
“With an obstructive China’s pre-eminent leader absent, New Delhi should find it easier to conduct the summit and finalize the concluding document despite Russia’s opposition to including any reference to the war in Ukraine,” he noted.
China would lose an opportunity to slow down the speed at which it is being isolated internationally, to revive its sagging export-led economy, and for Xi to advocate his initiatives such as Global Security Initiative (GSI), Global Development Initiative (GDI), and Global Civilization Initiative (GCI).
These initiatives are being touted by China and its diplomats, particularly since early this year, as the ideal alternatives to what Beijing calls the present US-led world order, Ranada said.
Xi Troubles With Party Dissidence
Xi has his compulsions in not venturing out of Beijing at this time to join important gatherings of global leaders. “At a time when China’s behavior is becoming increasingly aggressive and even some CCP cadres, at personal risk, are recommending improving ties with the US and China’s neighbors, Xi Jinping’s absence at these international gatherings sends the wrong message.”
Growing discontent with Xi and his policies is visible because of the slowing economy, mounting joblessness, steadily increasing doses of compulsory study of his thoughts for CCP members, imposition of progressively stringent security regulations, the policy towards Russia, and mishandling of China’s relations with the US, to name a few.
“CCP members and other sections of society alike are dissatisfied. Posts critical of Xi Jinping and his policies have appeared in social media, and CCP cadres have also written articles differing from some policies. This was reflected in two articles in the past couple of weeks — one in an official Chinese newspaper highlighting the economic problems and the other by a CCP member in a pro-CCP Singapore newspaper.”
An unusually candid and critical article in China’s Economic Observer on August 11, 2023, captioned “No mother can cook for her children with no rice,” highlighted the acute economic difficulties of China’s provinces. The Economic Observer assessed it was only a short time before the real estate sector became bankrupt. The article was deleted within a couple of days.
More damaging was the lengthy 2,980-word article authored by Hong Kong-based Chinese businessman Lew Mon-hung and published in the pro-CCP Singapore newspaper’ Lianhe Zaobo’ on August 21, 2023, Ranade pointed out.
In the classic style of China’s communist leaders, the article sharply criticized Xi without naming him and was published outside China. Titled “The root cause of China’s economic problems lies in political problems,” the article’s author is a CCP member and member of the 11th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — China’s top political advisory body.
“The author has taken considerable risks as outspoken critics in Hong Kong, like the 75-year-old multi-millionaire Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai, who was arrested under the National Security Law. The article, which criticized Xi Jinping’s re-election as President, focused on building a personality cult, handling relations with the US, policy on Russia, etc., reverberated on China’s social media Weibo,” Ranade noted.
The publication of these articles pointed to the emergence, or strengthening, of factions within the CCP opposed to Xi Jinping. Other pointers include the disappearance of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, the removal of senior Commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, and the speeches by Xi Jinping and Security Tsar Chen Wenqing during their visits to Xinjiang and Gansu, respectively which included numerous references to “stability.”
Xi Not In Pink Of Health?
Unless he has serious health issues, it could well be the infighting in the CCP and political instability inside China that require Xi to stay in Beijing.
Ranade said far from suggesting that Xi was delegating authority to the Chinese Premier or other Politburo Standing Committee members, the absence of Xi from key global events pointed to problems related to his health or intensifying inner-party factionalism.
“The state-owned CCTV’s widely observed video clip of a somewhat disoriented Xi Jinping walking up to meet South African President Ramaphosa at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg recently was interpreted by some China analysts as indicative of health problems. He was missing for two weeks each without explanation on at least two earlier occasions. He has also earlier been seen walking with a slight limp.”
Meanwhile, in another report, Muraleedaran Nair, a distinguished senior fellow at the Kochi-based Defense Research and Studies think tank, said there are reports about Xi Jinping’s health that spoke about his opting for traditional Chinese medicine for a cerebral aneurysm at the end of 2021.
“Some reports say that his episodic staying out of public view for a few days to a few weeks, especially after traveling, was due to health issues. Group discussions in some news portals and social media platforms by Chinese experts based overseas say Xi Jinping looked tired in some of the recent pictures, and some even suggested he was wearing a new wig!”
Xi did look frail and not in control of himself in the video clip from Johannesburg. He was utterly lost when the security men stopped his translator from accompanying him to the main hall of the BRICS Summit and staggered towards the venue, which was unusual for Xi Jinping.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. VIEWS PERSONAL. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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