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Home / Politics / News /  Xi Jinping hasn’t left China in 21 months, keeping diplomacy virtual

Xi Jinping hasn’t left China in 21 months, keeping diplomacy virtual

Beijing hasn’t said that Mr. Xi won’t be in Rome for the summit of Group of 20 nation leaders next week or that he will skip COP26, the United Nations climate change convention, in Glasgow a few days later, but there is almost no expectation that he will participate in any other form than on a screen

Chinese leader, his world travels interrupted by pandemic, is expected to remain a face on a screen at global summits

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Chinese President Xi Jinping sealed himself behind some of the world’s tightest border controls when Covid-19 hit, and even as his international image sags he isn’t expected to resume his globe-trotting diplomacy soon.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sealed himself behind some of the world’s tightest border controls when Covid-19 hit, and even as his international image sags he isn’t expected to resume his globe-trotting diplomacy soon.

As many other heads of state have stepped out of their protective bubbles and begun hitting the road, China’s president has limited his interaction with foreign counterparts to videolink and telephone.

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As many other heads of state have stepped out of their protective bubbles and begun hitting the road, China’s president has limited his interaction with foreign counterparts to videolink and telephone.

 

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The pandemic interrupted a full-throttle diplomatic drive by Mr. Xi, who in 2019 hosted 23 foreign leaders in Beijing and was welcomed in 11 countries, from Brazil to Italy to Russia and North Korea, according to analytics firm China Vitae, which tracks movement of China’s leaders.

Mr. Xi’s last foreign trip was to Myanmar in January 2020 and that March he hosted Pakistan’s president in Beijing. Since then, he isn’t known to have met in person with any foreign leader.

When Mr. Xi does finally venture abroad again, he will face trickier terrain.

During his extended international self-isolation, the world has changed and so has China. At home, a burgeoning cult of personality has inflated Mr. Xi’s profile and his priorities have turned inward. At the same time, his image on the global stage has deteriorated.

Recent Pew Research Center and Gallup Inc. polls show low levels of international trust in Mr. Xi and the Chinese leadership. Fewer governments appear in the mood to offer Mr. Xi the kind of red-carpet treatment he has come to expect in foreign capitals, like his ride in Queen Elizabeth’s horse-drawn carriage and a podium to address Australia’s parliament, according to former Western diplomats who have helped organize past visits by Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders.

Staying in China allows Mr. Xi to avoid uncomfortable questions from foreign counterparts—not to mention street protests on the sidelines of a visit—over issues like his government’s early missteps in dealing with Covid-19 or its policies toward Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As the Chinese economy deflates, Mr. Xi has less ability to boast about China’s import appetite and investment power, stock-in-trade of his speeches on past trips.

“It’s a different world, but China is changing too," says Kingsley Edney, a professor of Chinese studies at University of Leeds. “The contrast will be especially apparent when he comes back out," says Mr. Edney.

The summits in Rome and Glasgow are both on President Biden’s agenda, his second European tour since taking office in January. Russian President Vladimir Putin has resumed traveling but isn’t expected to join either event in person.

Most Group of 20 national leaders have left their countries this year and even some who haven’t, such as Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Argentina’s Alberto Fernández, are expected to be in Europe for the summits. Some are less certain, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been shunned by other leaders for his alleged role in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has often stayed away from summits.

Unlike Mr. Xi, most other G-20 leaders have hosted foreign dignitaries in 2021.

The 68-year-old Chinese president’s 21-month hiatus from in-person overseas diplomacy primarily reflects his administration’s extreme caution about Covid-19, China watchers say. With China’s borders virtually sealed, neither Premier Li Keqiang nor the other five members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top leadership, are known to have gone abroad either, though all including Mr. Xi have maintained busy domestic travel schedules.

In fact, according to analysts, the only senior Chinese officials to have gone overseas since the start of the pandemic are top foreign policy aide Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. In Chinese politics, domestic events generally outweigh global appearances and analysts say Mr. Xi’s priority is buttressing enough support for a third term at a Communist Party conclave a year from now.

“The number of trips will be very limited prior to the 20th Party Congress," said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China.

China’s Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to questions about Mr. Xi’s travel, and its Foreign Ministry has declined to discuss the issue.

China isn’t expected to open its borders before February’s Winter Olympic Games near Beijing and it says foreigners won’t be welcome at the games, which limits the likelihood Mr. Xi will soon be receiving overseas leaders.

Mr. Xi’s withdrawal has costs. “I think it weakens China’s soft power and messaging to the world," as well as Beijing’s sway at international forums, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a research professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Pre-pandemic, Mr. Xi was touring more countries annually and staying abroad longer than his U.S. counterparts, according to tallies by Neil Thomas, a China analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group. More recently, Mr. Xi has traveled the world from his desk: He has spoken bilaterally with 55 heads of governments in the time Mr. Biden has spoken with 34, said Mr. Thomas.

“There is a conscious political decision being made in Beijing to invest in leadership diplomacy," said Mr. Thomas, who predicts Mr. Xi will eventually pick up where he left off.

In a sign of the importance Beijing places on face-to-face talks, Mr. Xi’s virtual meetings with other heads of state—unlike his phone calls—have often been accorded in Chinese state-run media with a similar level of importance as his past foreign tours, according to the New York-based founder of China Vitae, Tin Albano. “It’s a big deal when Xi Jinping travels, so does [a video call] rise to that?", he said.

Once Mr. Xi hits the road again, Russia would be a likely first stop, analysts say. Moscow has been the top destination for a succession of Chinese leaders, including Mr. Xi, who took the first international trip of his presidency there and went almost every year until the pandemic hit. In 2019, Mr. Xi called Mr. Putin a best friend.

Mr. Xi could also be expected to visit Europe and Japan to wedge himself between the U.S. and its key allies, analysts say. Poorer nations that bolster support of Beijing in organizations such as the U.N. will also be stops, analysts say.

For now, Mr. Xi is forgoing even meetings in which China has been a driving force. Last month, he connected to a summit of Central Asian leaders in Tajikistan by video, and he is unlikely to travel to Senegal for next month’s three-dozen-nation Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which takes place once every three years.

The Leeds professor, Mr. Edney, said perhaps the most important thing lost in Mr. Xi’s absence is the value of common people overseas seeing the Chinese leader interacting on their soil.

Mr. Xi’s 2015 U.K. visit is an example, he said: “Having a beer in a pub with [then-U.K. Prime Minister] David Cameron does to some degree serve to humanize a place like China, which to many people is a very foreign place."

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