Of Xi Jinping’s limousine diplomacy – and drive for support for China in the trade war with US

  • The president rode in Chinese Hongqi limousines during his three-nation swing through Southeast Asia and the Pacific
  • The move was a bid to promote the Chinese brand on the international stage
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 6:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 10:27pm

Our choice of vehicles, it is said, speaks volumes about our character. And China’s president is no exception.

Departing from a past practice of using a host country’s cars for state visits, Xi Jinping rode in bulletproof Chinese-made Hongqi “Red Flag” limousines during his recent three-nation swing through Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The move was seen as an attempt to promote the Chinese brand on the international stage, in line with Xi’s own 2012 directive to Communist Party cadres that they eschew foreign wheels in favour of Chinese vehicles.

But as the president championed free trade and tried to rally support for China’s cause in its trade war with the US, his choice of a home-built car seemed to take on greater significance: a defiant response to the actions and criticism that have been thrown at China by America’s outspoken, Cadillac-riding president, Donald Trump.

Su Hao, a professor at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, said choosing a Hongqi vehicle for Xi’s recent state visits likely was part of an effort to call attention to the Chinese marque on the international stage.

“This showed that Chinese cars could also fit for the top state occasions,” Su said. “The Americans don’t trust local security so they always bring their own [cars],” he said. “But I don’t think the use of Hongqi is for the same reason.”

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Hongqi – the name means “red flag”, a traditional symbol for the Communist Party – is a luxury car brand launched in 1958 by China First Auto Works (FAW) Group. The oldest Chinese passenger car marque, it had long been the official vehicle for high-ranking government officials and visiting dignitaries in China.

Mao Zedong used it during US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in the 1970s. But starting in the 1990s, the brand fell out of favour as Chinese leaders switched to using imported vehicles.

But with Trump making a habit of taking his specially enhanced black Cadillac – nicknamed “The Beast” – wherever he goes, the stage was set for Xi to fully embrace the Chinese brand on his trips.

Thus, two luxurious custom-made Hongqi limos were loaded onto an Air China Boeing 747 airliner and jetted to Papua New Guinea for Xi’s visit to the Apec summit. From the airport, his motorcade travelled to the luxury Stanley Hotel in the capital, Port Moresby, via a highway – sealed off by police – that had been repaved with Chinese funding, and past a boulevard adorned with both countries’ flags.

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After the summit, the cars were put back on the plane and flown first to Brunei and then to the Philippines as Xi visited each of those Southeast Asian countries for the first time.

The president’s switch to the Chinese car brand highlighted the diplomatic protocol and careful planning that can undergird the choice of vehicles for official functions.

Lu Peixin, former head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s protocol department, has said China usually wants host countries to provide bulletproof vehicles for its visiting Chinese dignitaries, if possible, the Legal Evening News reported.

When a small host country did not have special state vehicles, China asked only that the best and safest vehicles available be provided for the official’s visit, Lu was quoted.

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During Xi’s visits to the US in 2012, 2013 and 2015, he was driven around in the hosts’ Cadillacs – the premier luxury brand of iconic Detroit car marker General Motors. When in France in 2014, the Chinese president rode in a Citroen C6, a luxury “executive” sedan from the French carmaker.

During his 2015 trip to Britain, Xi even took Queen Elizabeth’s Gold State Coach for a ride. The Royal Family’s enclosed carriage, drawn by eight horses, has been used at the coronation of every British monarch since George IV in 1821.

But in 2014, after a G20 summit in Australia, Xi ferried two Hongqi L5 cars to New Zealand before his state visit – the first and only time he did not use a local car.

Xi said in a 2012 speech to Communist Party cadres that China’s leaders should only use Chinese cars.

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“It doesn’t look right to sit in a foreign car,” the president said. “Lots of foreign leaders use limousines of their own country, unless there isn’t one.”

In the wake of Xi’s speech, Foreign Minister Wang Yi began using a Hongqi H7 as his official vehicle exclusively in 2013 and started providing Hongqi cars for the motorcades of visiting foreign leaders.