Since when does Xi Jinping’s media outlets live-blog his calls with world leaders? Washington Post reporter Olivier Knox remarked, “I’m not sure I’ve seen [it] before,” and it seems almost singular globally. Normally, leaders wait until the end of the call and issue carefully crafted read-outs to shape the conversation.
Unless, perhaps, they’re extremely anxious to get a message out quickly … in which case Vladimir Putin might want to rethink some of his life choices:
Xi says tells Biden that China, U.S. must guide bilateral relations along right track – Chinese state media.
— Idrees Ali (@idreesali114) March 18, 2022
Shortly afterward, AFP followed up with its own reporting from China’s media. While it’s unclear that Xi explicitly called out Putin, it’s completely clear what this means:
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said war is “in no one’s interest” during a phone call Friday with Joe Biden in which the US president aimed to pressure Beijing into joining Western condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. …
State broadcaster CCTV reported Xi saying during the call that “state-to-state relations cannot go to the stage of military hostilities.”
China and the United States should “shoulder international responsibilities,” Xi was quoted as saying, as well as declaring that “peace and security are the most valued treasures of the international community.”
It was not immediately clear if Xi made any direct criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine or expressed willingness to assist the US-led pressure campaign on the Kremlin.
That might not be news if it appeared in a White House readout, which as of the moment has not yet been published. The fact that the Xi regime has pushed that statement out through state media, as Reuters reporter Idrees Ali reports, while the call is in progress seems particularly noteworthy. Xi uses his state media the same as any dictator does — to prepare his subjects for whatever party line will be forthcoming, and for whatever “reality” they are supposed to embrace. And needless to say, this reality is light years away from Xi’s embrace of Putin at the Olympics.
Nor is it the first such message that Xi and his censors have put out over state media. Yesterday, Allahpundit rounded up some of the surprising coverage that China’s television news gave to Russian atrocities in Ukraine. It certainly looks like Beijing wants to groom its captive audience for a particular direction in foreign policy, and it’s not in Putin’s favor.
Why would Xi send those signals otherwise? He doesn’t have to worry about popular sentiment or accountability in his system. If he wanted to glad-hand Biden and the West on Putin while keeping calm and carrying on otherwise domestically, Xi has all the room in the world to do so. Especially coming so soon after Xi’s signals of closeness to Putin, this sudden critical look at Russia and its Ukraine atrocities runs significant risks of mass cognitive dissonance among Xi’s subjects that could undermine confidence in his leadership. That’s already coming under scrutiny among other stakeholders in Beijing, reportedly.
So, the conclusion has to be that the new messaging has some value to Xi that exceeds its risks. It looks like the end of the Xi-Putin “no limits” partnership, and perhaps a renewed sense that Xi has bigger risks in angering a suddenly united West. He’ll still try to play both sides to the extent that he can, and likely won’t enthusiastically adopt sanctions against Russia. However, Xi probably won’t go out of his way to help Putin avoid them now either. The message from China’s state media to Putin looks something like this: son, you’re on your own.