Xi Jinping, self-described champion of multilateralism and renowned advocate for international cooperation, is skipping the G-20 this year.
In lieu of Xi’s smug moralizing, world leaders gathered in New Delhi will hear from Premier Li Qiang who’ll “elaborate on China’s view and position,” as the Chinese Foreign Ministry put it Monday. This’ll mark the first time Xi hasn’t attended the event since taking power more than a decade ago.
There was some speculation that Xi’s absence may reflect tension between China and India, but that’s an unsatisfying explanation. After all, Xi attended the BRICS summit last month. Granted, it wasn’t in India, but if he were irritable with Narendra Modi, he might’ve skipped that too. You could argue that Xi now views the BRICS project (whatever it is) as more important than the G-20 for advancing China’s interests, but it’s difficult to escape the notion that Xi is trying to send a broader message with his absence from the leaders’ summit.
It’s possible (likely, in my view) that Xi thinks the gathering is beneath him. That’d be inconsistent with his rhetoric regarding “respect” for other nations and treating all countries equally regardless of stature, but if we’re honest, that’s all a charade, and not a very convincing one at that. It’s helpful, I think, to pose it as a series of questions: Does Xi feel he owes anyone answers regarding China’s ongoing support for Russia’s war effort? Or regarding China’s uncompromisingly belligerent position on Taiwan? Or regarding the Chinese economy? Or regarding anything for that matter?
Xi’s an out-and-out dictator who enjoys absolute power at home. He doesn’t answer questions. And people know not to ask him any. This is a man who requires 1.4 billion people not just to submit, but to subscribe to his “Thought,” a proper noun in this context. To be fair, that’s not as insane in China as it seems to the outside world (“thought” is a big thing for the Party), but over the past three years, Xi’s already overbearing paternalism became something more chilling with echoes of the 20th century’s most infamous figures. That Xi doesn’t hide his pretensions to reenacting one of those figures is indicative of psychosis.
Needless to say, Xi’s decision not to attend the G-20 will only serve to unnerve already skittish foreign capital. Overseas investors fled Mainland equities in droves last month and foreign direct investment fell sharply earlier this year. I discussed all of this at some length in the latest Monthly Letter+.
Even if Xi’s absence in New Delhi merely reflects a desire to snub Modi, that speaks volumes about the viability of the BRICS project. As I put it last month, “India isn’t going to countenance an arrangement where it’s relegated to any kind of subservience.” Don’t forget: Modi’s an autocrat too. And like Xi, he’s not a man who enjoys being embarrassed. If the bilateral relationship between China and India is such that Xi is inclined to petty slights, what does that say about the prospects for grand cooperation between the BRICS nations on something like a shared currency?
It’s also possible, of course, that Xi wants to convey solidarity with Vladimir Putin, who won’t be in New Delhi either (technically, Putin is an international fugitive, and as such didn’t attend last month’s BRICS gathering in South Africa). As far as I’m aware, Beijing still dislikes the word “war” as it applies to Ukraine.
Xi’s newfound penchant for unexpectedly skipping events and speaking engagements may be a reflection of his state of mind. As more than a few observers suggested Monday, Xi is exhibiting something that looks like a king complex. If you want an audience with Xi, you have to — you know — journey to the Chinese border, bribe your way into the country, procure a guide, saddle up some pack animals and make your way to the castle.
Finally, it’s likely Xi just isn’t interested in engaging with institutions he doesn’t dominate. Nobody is going to preach to Xi anymore, let alone in person. We’re beyond that. The only people who preach to kings are preachers.
The rapidity of Xi’s metamorphosis is astounding and chilling besides. We talk often about the stark juxtaposition between the Putin who once readily (if disingenuously) engaged with Western leaders including US presidents, and today’s Putin, the genocidal would-be czar. But the long arc of Putin’s paranoid descent into historiographical madness looks positively glacial compared to Xi’s rapid metamorphosis which, when completed at the Party congress in October, left the world staring at a nuclear-armed emperor.
Commenting further on the G-20 Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing is “ready to work with all parties concerned to ensure a successful meeting.”