Skipping G20, Xi Jinping visits northeastern China despite huge floods in south


Xi wants to boost his image without getting his feet wet or facing an angry public, analysts say.

Skipping G20, Xi Jinping visits northeastern China despite huge floods in south

Chinese leader Xi Jinping visits Harbin in northeastern Heilongjiang province to observe cleanup efforts following last month’s floods, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is skipping the G20 weekend summit in India for a tour of northeastern Chinese villages hit by flooding a month ago in a bid to burnish his image at home, political commentators said on Friday.

Xi’s appearance in Heilongjiang province is part of a carefully choreographed public relations campaign to paint him as a hands-on, caring leader, yet appears to ignore the torrential flooding in the southern province of Guangdong and Hong Kong, analysts told Radio Free Asia.

Ironically, the tranquil scenes of Xi’s inspection tour were in stark contrast to massive flooding that hit the southern province of Guangdong and neighboring Hong Kong this week, as rainstorms in the trailing edge of Typhoon Haikui dumped record amounts of rainfall on the Pearl River delta.

Instead, Xi appeared on state television and on the front page of party newspaper the People’s Daily, visiting villagers near Shangzhi city and inspecting reconstruction work a month after the area was devastated by Typhoon Doksuri.

“I am concerned about places hit by disaster,” Xi says in footage aired by state broadcaster CCTV. “In China, when the people encounter difficulties, we must give full play to the superiority of our socialist system.”

State news agency Xinhua chimed in: “In the village of Longwangmiao, Xi walked into the fields to check the impact of the floods on the rice crops,” adding: “He also inspected the work on the restoration of damaged houses and infrastructure while walking along the streets.”

“Visiting villagers’ homes to learn about their losses and the supply of daily necessities, Xi encouraged them to bolster their confidence to overcome difficulties,” the agency said. “He expressed the hope that they will soon be able to resume normal work and life, and that their lives will continue to improve.”

PR campaign

U.S.-based veteran political commentator Hu Ping said the People’s Daily and state broadcaster CCTV have Xi in the headlines nearly every day.

“It doesn’t matter if something’s happening or if nothing’s happening – he has to have it this way,” Hu said. “Of course he wants to make these moves.”

“So he heads to Heilongjiang to inspect the disaster-hit area and to boost his public image.”

Xinhua’s English website also carried gushing descriptions of Xi’s virtues, including a quote from former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying he was “a man of sincerity and … a man of integrity.”

A feature article described how Xi admired late model party official Jiao Yulu, who “often stayed in poor farmers’ simple mud huts, eating and working with them.”

“Like Jiao, Xi is also known to be down-to-earth and interested in conducting on-site research and investigation to solve problems,” the article said.

Far cry

U.S.-based current affairs commentator Tang Jingyuan said Xi hasn’t been to a live disaster zone in years, and his profile as a leader is a far cry from the glowing propaganda that is written about him.

“Since Xi Jinping took office, particularly since the 19th party congress, he has behaved very strangely,” Tang said. “Whenever he needs to be seen to be there to inspect when natural disasters are happening, even if it’s just for show, he will only go there once it’s over.”

“When there was flooding in Zhengzhou, he was off in Tibet – that’s a pretty typical example.”

Tang said Xi’s personal security measures have gotten tighter and tighter over the years he has been in power, citing his visit to the northern city of Xi’an during the China-Central Asia Summit in May, when residents were ordered to evacuate from any street he walked along beforehand.

“If he were to visit Shenzhen which is being flooded now, he would be worried that the chaotic situation and public dissatisfaction could pose a threat to his power or to his life,” Tang said. “He thinks about himself, not about the people.”

No speech

Xi was also notably absent from devastating floods that hit western areas of Beijing and Zhuozhou city in neighboring Hebei province last month, sparking questions about his leadership.

Curiously, Xi didn’t turn up to give his own speech at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. State media reported the speech as if Xi had delivered it himself, and officials refused to explain his absence.

Tang said Xi may be too worried about a possible attempt to remove him from power to leave the country.

“There’ve been similar things in the history of the Chinese Communist Party before,” he said. “Both [late former premiers] Hua Guofeng and Zhao Ziyang were removed from power on their return to China from a foreign trip.”

“He’s very afraid of that right now, because China’s economy is in serious crisis, which has seriously damaged Xi Jinping’s political prestige.”

Chen Li-fu, who heads the Taiwan Association of University Professors, said there has also been speculation that Xi’s recent absences from international events are linked to health problems.

“It could be his health, that he can’t keep up his normal schedule,” Chen said, adding that other concerns could also be in play. 

“The G20 summit is a pretty major event, with a lot of things out of his control,” he said. “He can’t control what happens at the venue or at the meetings.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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