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Opinion So much for Xi Jinping’s triumphal year

Chinese President Xi Jinping casts his vote during the closing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 11. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
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This was supposed to be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s year of triumph.

A successful Winter Olympics were staged in Beijing. China’s economy was set to come roaring back following the pandemic. July marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, and Xi was widely expected to make a celebratory visit to the territory. And capping it off this fall would be the Communist Party congress and his reappointment to an unprecedented third term.

But now China is grappling with its worst covid-19 outbreak since 2020 and its first reported virus deaths in a year, precipitating a series of lockdowns in Jilin province and the economic powerhouse cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen. The stated growth target of 5.5 percent for the year now seems in question.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong is reeling from a debilitating fifth wave of the virus, with confirmed cases soaring to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic and more than 5,000 deaths, the world’s highest death rate per capita. Hong Kong was once a global model for containing the virus through border closures, strict quarantine and aggressive contact tracing and isolation. Now, the city has seen its health system overwhelmed, its containment efforts being abandoned, a mass exodus of people — and its embattled leadership looking increasingly likely to be replaced.

Just two months before a new chief executive is set to be appointed, the current one, Carrie Lam, has not said whether she intends to stand for another five-year term. But analysts are openly speculating about new leadership and some prominent pro-China figures have lately been writing about her in often scathing terms, suggesting that she might have lost Beijing’s support.

“At the root of our problem is leadership,” wrote property tycoon Ronnie Chan in a March 17 opinion piece in the South China Morning Post. “It is more to do with personality — specifically a lack of humility and an overabundance of unfounded self-confidence. These are lifelong traits for some of our leaders.”

And then there’s the war in Ukraine.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade his smaller neighbor, China was officially neutral but decidedly pro-Russia, echoing the Kremlin’s talking points blaming the United States and NATO for sparking the crisis. Xi, like Putin, might have believed the war would be over quickly, the West would be too divided to respond, and Beijing and Moscow would create a powerful new axis. Xi and Putin signed a “no limits” partnership agreement weeks before the invasion.

Xi now finds himself uncomfortably pressured by the United States and the European Union to drop China’s pro-Russia tilt, use his leverage with Putin to end the fighting, and not help Russia escape punishing economic sanctions. “For the E.U., this is a huge crisis on our doorstep,” one European diplomat told me. “If we see China not contributing, there will be consequences.”

This diplomat and others said that, so far, China was trying to straddle both sides. “Sitting on the fence,” one called it. Another described it as “trying to have their cake and eat it.”

On one hand, they said, China abstained in votes condemning Russia in the United Nations. On the other, China still refuses to call the conflict a “war” and Russia’s action an “invasion.”

Analysts here in Hong Kong and in Beijing have seen few signs of any change in China’s state-run media.

Asked if China was actually using its influence with Putin to try to bring an end to the conflict, one of the diplomats I spoke to said: “If they are, they are doing a very good job of concealing it.”

President Biden’s video call with Xi on Friday doesn’t appear to have produced any change of tone from Beijing.

The diplomats and analysts I spoke with agreed that China is likely to do just enough to help Russia, but not too much, to avoid antagonizing the West. For example, China lifted its restrictions on imports of Russian wheat and might purchase more Russian oil. Russian banks started switching to China’s UnionPay card service after being cut off from Visa and Mastercard. But the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank halted all deals with Russia and Belarus, and Chinese banks have been steering clear of Russia to avoid “secondary sanctions” from the West.

“I think at least some Chinese banks are doing the numbers about hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Russia deals vs. billions of dollars of SWIFT access,” Dean Cheng, a China expert with the Heritage Foundation, said in an email.

Russia’s problems in trying to subdue Ukraine might have also thrown a wrench into any Chinese planning to take military action against Taiwan. The West coming together swiftly to impose powerful sanctions is likely a warning to China of what it might face should it decide to invade Taiwan, and the Ukrainian resistance has shown that a powerful, better-equipped military cannot always easily defeat a smaller adversary determined to defend its turf.

Pressure from the West over Ukraine, a new outbreak, economic head winds and chaos in Hong Kong. This seems hardly like the triumphal year Xi was expecting, and there’s certainly not much to celebrate.

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