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Xi’s Diplomatic No-shows Hint at Domestic Political Woes

Xi Jinping’s political problems will likely compound as more signs of the Chinese economy tanking emerge later this year and social instability rises.

Xi is likely cutting back on international diplomacy due to political troubles at home. 

The Xi Jinping leadership has long been promoting so-called “great power diplomacy” in seeking to expand the People’s Republic of China’s global influence. Yet of late, Xi has noticeably strayed from his own policy. 

During the annual BRICS summit in South Africa from Aug. 22 to Aug. 24, Xi skipped a speech he was slated to make at a business forum; the PRC commerce minister read out the text in his stead. 

Near the end of August, Reuters learned that Xi would skip a G20 meeting in India on Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, with premier Li Qiang replacing him. This was officially confirmed by the PRC foreign ministry days later. 

And on Sept. 8, The Wall Street Journal reported that PRC vice president Han Zheng would attend the United Nations General Assembly starting on Sept. 19 in place of foreign minister Wang Yi. Because Wang was supposed to travel to Washington after the UN meeting for detailed discussions about Xi’s potential trip to San Francisco in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the Journal noted that there are now “doubts” about Xi visiting the United States. 

Xi’s no-shows have prompted much external speculation. Based on our understanding of Chinese Communist Party elite politics and operations, as well as an analysis of developments and publicly available information, we believe that a key factor behind Xi’s sudden diplomatic absences is worsening political problems at home. 

Unsatisfactory speculations 

One popular theory about why Xi Jinping failed to deliver a speech at the BRICS summit in person and cut back on travels abroad was that he was suffering from serious health problems, including a stroke. While this possibility cannot be ruled out, public photos and video footage of Xi at the BRICS meeting and since then show him moving about normally with no discernable signs of ill health. 

Xi has also been quite active since returning from Johannesburg, including traveling to Xinjiang for an inspection tour a day after arriving back on the mainland. It is possible that Xi was aware of rumors about his health, and scheduled his Xinjiang trip immediately after a big international meeting to dispel the speculation and serve other propaganda purposes. 

Regarding Xi skipping the G20 meeting in India, observers have speculated that relations between the PRC and India have been frosty and Xi had perhaps stayed away because he was jealous of India’s economy. However, such speculation is not very convincing in view of Xi having no issue with meeting Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS summit in South Africa. Members of the BRICS are looking to jointly expand the bloc’s influence and serve as a counterweight to the U.S.-led global order. Xi and the CCP’s broader geopolitical aspirations make it very unlikely that Xi deliberately intended to snub India and worsen relations with a geopolitical partner by skipping out on the G20 meeting.

As “new cold war” tensions grow between the U.S. and the PRC, some observers have also argued that Xi not traveling to India for the G20 meeting signals that he is “done with the established world order” and is positioning the regime as a “full-on opponent” to the United States. This argument likewise runs counter to Beijing’s continued willingness to engage with Washington and tempering of provocative behavior since the PRC spy balloon incident. “The word ‘Taiwan’ did not come up once. They gave us very, very little rhetoric or lecturing,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius when recounting her trip to China at the end of August. 

Raimondo further noted that the PRC’s “economic rebound is a bit lackluster” and “stable bilateral ties in terms of trade and business is in the interest” of both sides. “They acknowledged the real estate crisis. There was no pretending that wasn’t happening,” she added. 

President Joe Biden also observed that Beijing was not spoiling for a fight. Speaking at  a press conference in Vietnam on Sept. 10, Biden said that he talked about “stability” with Xi’s number two Li Qiang at the G20 meeting in India and “it wasn’t confrontational at all.” Biden said that Xi has “his hands full right now” with China’s domestic situation, adding that the PRC’s “crisis” is unlikely “going to cause China to invade Taiwan. As a matter of fact, the opposite, [because China] probably doesn’t have the same capacity that it had before.”

Political troubles

A more plausible explanation for Xi Jinping cutting back on international diplomacy is his current preoccupation with domestic political woes. 

Communist Party leaders have been known to face coups or challenges to their authority at home when they are abroad or on vacation. Leonid Brezhnev and others led a coup against Nikita Khrushchev in October 1964 when the latter was vacationing at Pitsunda in Georgia. In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest by coup plotters at his holiday home on the Black Sea in Crimea. As for the CCP, Li Peng convinced Deng Xiaoping to crush the student protests at Tiananmen Square when Zhao Ziyang was in North Korea from April 23 to April 30; Zhao would later be ousted and placed under house arrest. 

Xi is undoubtedly aware of the above history, and has tended to play it safe while traveling away from the mainland. In one recent example, Xi did not stay overnight in Hong Kong in 2022 when he was there to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover, but broke convention by returning to Shenzhen. When Xi had no choice but to make international trips during his first two terms, his political allies and Party elders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao would usually be spotted making symbolic public appearances in a political “show of force.” However, Xi now appears to be unable to rely on Hu and Wen to stand in for him, partly due to them being of advanced age and partly because Xi had solidified his status as the undisputed paramount leader at the 20th Party Congress.

Domestic political pressure is almost certainly weighing on Xi. For one, the PRC’s internal and external crises have been rapidly and steadily worsening since Beijing ended “zero-COVID” in late 2022, with the blame ultimately to be shouldered by Xi the paramount leader. In particular, China’s severe and noticeable economic deterioration and real estate crisis are exposing and triggering previously regime-obscured debt and financial problems; economic problems will inevitably result in social problems, and both problems will lead to political problems for Xi and the CCP. 

Another sign that Xi is plagued by political troubles is the recent removal of senior officials who are considered to be from his camp, including former foreign minister Qin Gang and two leading generals of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. We previously analyzed that the abrupt removal of those officials indicates that Xi is “very likely facing pushback of some sort from within the Party.”

Various political rumors and information also offer insight into Xi’s political situation. On Aug. 18, Wu Zuolai, a Chinese political commentator and independent scholar residing in the United States, posted a cryptic message on X which suggested that Xi ranted and raved at his subordinates at this year’s Beidaihe gathering because he was distraught at the state of the economy and how his immediate three predecessors had “passed me the parcel to have it blow up in my hands.” And on Sept. 5, Nikkei Asia reported that Party elders had “reprimanded” Xi at Beidaihe over China’s “political, economic and social turmoil,” and Xi had later expressed frustration at Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao to his political allies.  

SinoInsider has obtained information from sources with knowledge of the matter that Xi is greatly concerned about the possibility of assassination attempts against him, and has placed heightened importance on ensuring his personal safety.

Black Swan territory

Xi Jinping’s political problems will likely compound as more signs of the Chinese economy tanking emerge later this year and social instability rises. The Xi leadership could seek to get a handle on the political situation by stepping up anti-corruption investigations and purges, but such measures could instead generate greater pushback against Xi. As Xi comes under fire at home and abroad for the various crises, he will increasingly be forced to decide and implement measures to either save the Party or save himself. 

Businesses, investors, and governments should prepare contingencies for heightened political instability in the PRC, including the emergence of political Black Swans. 

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