According to Chinese state media reports, on the evening of Dec. 28, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke over the phone and exchanged good wishes for the New Year. Compared with the content of past New Year greetings between the Chinese and Russian leaders from 2016 to 2019, this year’s greetings are quite unusual. The unusual lies in the following.
1. Different styles of greetings. In the past four years, Xi and Putin have exchanged New Year congratulatory letters. This year, however, they talked on the phone. According to reports, Xi did not call at an appointed time. It means that Beijing initiated the call. Is there any special reason or special thing to talk about on the phone this time? What is the purpose?
2. The timing is different. In the past four years, both parties exchanged New Year’s congratulations on New Year’s Eve, that is, on Dec. 31. However, this year was uncharacteristically and unexpectedly three days earlier. Why was it done earlier?
3. The leaders of China and Russia greeted each other, but greetings between the two countries’ prime ministers were missing. In the past four years, the exchange of New Year messages by the heads of state of China and Russia was followed by the exchange of New Year messages between prime ministers. However, in media reports, there was no mention of exchanges between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Russian Prime Minister Mishustin. Does this mean that congratulatory letters between the two prime ministers were still sent as usual, and only the greetings between the two leaders were out of the ordinary?
4. The content of greetings is different. At the end of December 2019, Xi Jinping reviewed the Sino-Russian friendship with full confidence in his congratulatory message, according to a report by Xinhua. “China-Russia relations had entered a new era,” Xi said. “We signed and issued a joint statement on strengthening contemporary global strategic stability, which demonstrates our firm determination to jointly safeguard global strategic stability.”
While looking forward to 2020, Xi said he stood ready to maintain close contact with Putin, “to boost the momentum of the respective development and revitalization of China and Russia.” In contrast, Putin’s message was quite reserved. He simply acknowledged that the two sides had “consensuses, which opened new prospects for mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields,” and that “with joint efforts, the comprehensive cooperation between Russia and China as well as their constructive coordination on international issues will be upgraded to higher levels.”
The congratulatory messages in the three years prior, despite different wording, are similar in content and theme to 2019, conveying that they were satisfied with past cooperation and looked forward to the future.
However, in the turbulent world we face this year, the content of the 2020 Xi-Putin phone call is somewhat different. First of all, Xi expressed his concern about the international environment that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces. Xinhua cited Xi as saying, “2020 has been an unprecedented year,” and “the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought severe challenges to the life and security of human beings and huge impact on the global economy.” The subtext is that the CCP was also heavily affected, so it can be said that the Party faces a distressed time.
Secondly, Xi expressed the importance of relations with Russia during this time of crisis and reviewed the cooperation and support between both countries during the past year. Xi emphasized, “Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the China-Russia Treaty of Good-neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation.” Xi called on the two countries to take the anniversary as an opportunity to push bilateral cooperation to the next level.
Xi also noted that “bilateral ties are not affected by the changes in the international situation.”
He added: “The strategic cooperation between China and Russia can effectively resist any attempts to suppress and divide the two countries,” and hoped that the two countries can “make greater contributions to building a new type of international relationship and a community with a shared future for mankind.” The subtext is that Xi is worried Russia will align closer to the United States. This is evident in the pressure Xi currently faces from the U.S. administration.
Returning Xi’s friendly gesture, Putin answered with a more mild tone. He said that “Russia will continue staying committed to pushing forward the high-level development of China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination,” and “hopes the two countries can continue to support each other on issues of major concern and enhance strategic coordination and cooperation in international affairs to make contributions to global stability,” according to Xinhua’s account of the phone conversation.
However, Putin’s response might have been a far cry from Xi’s expectations. After all, Putin did not respond to Xi’s “distressed time,” “a new type of international relationship,” or the implied request to distance from the United States. In fact, Russia, born out of the Soviet Union, knows best about the CCP’s intentions and knows best how to ask a favor from a tiger. Judging from the interactions between the United States and Russia in the past two years, especially between Donald Trump and Putin, it goes without saying whose side Putin is in favor of.
Certainly, Putin would not mind keeping up a superficial partnership with the CCP if he could gain maximum benefit from it. But in terms of fundamental interests, Russia will never sacrifice itself for the CCP.
What is the reason and purpose behind the unusual call between the Chinese and Russian leaders? Perhaps it is to dispel rumors that recently went around the Chinese internet about Xi’s poor health. The phone call served to prove that Xi is alive and well.
Recently, the Chinese internet has been abuzz about Xi’s supposed mental stress due to pressure from the United States. Trump’s series of targeted sanctions have caused the CCP to panic. It’s no wonder that Xi has just mentioned “this overwhelming critical moment” during a recent meeting of the CCP Politburo (comprised of the Party’s elite).
Top Party officials’ health conditions are considered state secrets. Perhaps people within the Party’s inner circle who know about Xi’s health are deliberately revealing the news on the internet. It is likely that those factions within the Party who dislike Xi are testing the waters, gauging if they can prepare for future operations.
After Xi came to power, many officials in the faction loyal to former paramount leader Jiang Zemin were sacked through Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Xi has continually stressed to his officials that he is the one who calls the shots. However, Xi continues to face factional challenges to his power: from the Jiang faction, leftists, reformists, and centrists. In particular, the growing list of sanctions from the United States, including restrictions on visas for some CCP officials, Party members, and their family, have affected the vital interests of Party officials who have assets overseas and whose families have immigrated overseas. They are naturally quite dissatisfied and want to jump before the “red boat” sinks. One of the methods of self-protection is to leak “secrets” about senior officials.
Xi is not indifferent to the divisions with the Party. At the recent Politburo media, state media reports noted that Xi asked Politburo members to “criticize and self-criticize,” support “Xi’s administration,” and learn “Xi Jinping Thought.” This is another manifestation of his intention to control disputes within the Party and maintain his power. It’s just that under the overwhelming international pressure, and as more Chinese people become disillusioned with the Party, the CCP may not last for long.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.