Homebody Xi Finally Steps Outside China

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The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Kazakhstan on the first leg of a three-day trip, COVID-19 lockdowns lead to food and medicine shortages —including in Xinjiang, and China and India make a breakthrough at their disputed border.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Kazakhstan on the first leg of a three-day trip, COVID-19 lockdowns lead to food and medicine shortages—including in Xinjiang, and China and India make a breakthrough at their disputed border.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Xi Embarks on Central Asia Trip

Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on his first trip outside China’s borders since January 2020 on Wednesday, beginning in Kazakhstan and then traveling to Uzbekistan for a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (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, putting an end to previous claims that Saudi Arabia or Southeast Asia would be Xi’s first overseas destination. His transformation into a homebody seems prompted by a mixture of concerns over both COVID-19 and China’s domestic political situation.

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

The current trip, then, signals strong confidence ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that opens on Oct. 16, when Xi will almost certainly confirm his third term as leader after changing the constitution in 2018 and breaking 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 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the two leaders pledged a “no limits” 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 opposing voices have been censored within China.

On a visit to Russia ahead of Xi’s trip, third-ranking Chinese leader Li Zhanshu praised Russia’s “important choice” under supposed threat from NATO, which tracks with Chinese propaganda. At the same time, Chinese institutions have largely cooperated with sanctions on Russia, even as the government has condemned them. There is little sign of the Chinese materiel support for the war that some analysts feared. Amid Russia’s recent military setbacks, Xi’s conversation with Putin may be somewhat strained—although still accompanied by shared anti-Western feeling.

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

One of the main components of the SCO is joint military exercises, known as “peace missions”—supposedly counterterrorism exercises—which in practice look like rehearsals for suppressing popular revolt with foreign military force, as Russia did in Kazakhstan in January. Although Central Asia’s autocrats might want a Russian or Chinese guarantee of their power, this tactic raises fear with the public, who see the arrival of foreign military forces as a threat of new imperialism.

But Xi’s Kazakhstan trip has already delivered an implicit check on Russia’s imperial ambitions, with Xi promising that “no matter how the international situation changes, we will continue to resolutely support 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. That has prompted anger from Russian nationalists, who have suggested that Kazakhstan should be next—and a quickly deleted post from Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, questioning Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.

It’s unlikely that an exhausted and overstretched Russia would make any serious threat against Kazakhstan—but Xi’s words may be welcome in a region that is used to playing great powers against each other.

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

What We’re Following

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 almost no chance of a policy change until after the Party Congress next month—and given winter surges, it looks unlikely until next spring at the earliest.

As with Shanghai’s two-month lockdown earlier this year, stories of food and medicine shortages in China have spread online. The shortages appear particularly acute in Xinjiang, where China has carried out a sweeping crackdown on Uyghurs and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people. Yili (or Ili) prefecture has been hit particularly badly, with accounts of starvation that Uyghur activists attribute to neglect of Uyghurs in favor of Han Chinese residents.

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

Royal relationships. The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II last week prompted a flood of largely positive stories on Chinese social media, dominating Weibo. That may not last: King Charles III has often 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 “appalling old waxworks.”)

In Hong Kong, mourning the queen takes on extra meaning. Although Britain’s own failures to grant democracy to its former colony laid the groundwork for Chinese repression today, anti-CCP Hong Kongers are sometimes enthusiastic Anglophiles who credit the colonial era for giving them the independent legal system that Beijing has destroyed. (Britain is the main destination for Hong Kongers fleeing China’s crackdown since 2019.) For many people, laying flowers in front of 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 friction points between the two powers in disputed Ladakh—a major breakthrough in their ongoing talks. China and India’s Himalayan border has been the site of repeated tensions that exploded in deadly violence in June 2020. China has minimized casualty reports from that conflict, while the Indian soldiers who died have become national martyrs.

The ill-defined nature of the border means patrolling soldiers from both sides often believe themselves to be on their own territory, causing many small confrontations. Beijing and New Delhi have for months engaged in intense diplomatic and military talks to defuse the situation.

Tech and Business

Doctors within borders. China has begun implementing new controls on foreign medical equipment, with a list of 315 items now required to be procured from local suppliers. That’s a significant step, because many in the Chinese elite—who often attend international clinics—still see foreign treatment and techniques as superior. Businesses had seen Chinese health care as a boom market, especially for medical devices, as the population aged and the country got richer.

The controls present a challenge for foreign suppliers, who may attempt to strike deals with local manufacturers—but could risk intellectual property theft.

More meetings called to solve economic crisis. The Chinese economic crisis spurred by the government’s zero-COVID policy and the property market collapse continues. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has quickly become the point man for solving the problem. This could represent new power for Li, but I suspect it means he can be blamed when the solutions don’t work out. On Monday, he hosted another high-profile special meeting on “stabilizing the economy.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese public seems increasingly aware that property prices are being artificially held up to avoid disaster. Sales at the country’s top property developers fell by nearly 40 percent in July, compared with the previous year, but prices have only dropped slightly. The consensus among those I’ve spoken to is that people are waiting to buy until prices fall significantly.

Audit questions. A Hong Kong legal case may expose the shoddy standards and opaque business environment of audit work in China. The global audit 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 it inflated sales by more than $300 million.

Some audit firms unthinkingly accept claims by Chinese companies without doing research on the ground, and information that would be relatively easy to obtain in the West is often disguised or unavailable in China. The United States and China recently reached a tentative agreement on audit standards; U.S. inspectors are in Hong Kong this week to see whether China can live up to the agreement.

Desk Team