Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei

Does Xi’s Hong Kong trip mean Chinese leaders are moving past Covid, returning to global scene?

  • Xi Jinping had not left the Chinese mainland since a trip to Myanmar in January 2020, days before the city of Wuhan was locked down due to Covid-19
  • Absence of China’s leaders from the global stage has been detrimental to the country’s reputation and image at a time when the world is facing drastic changes
Does President Xi Jinping’s arrival in Hong Kong on Thursday, his first visit outside mainland China in two-and-a-half years, signal a possible return of China’s leaders to the global scene and an end to their self-imposed isolation?

This question has critical implications for China and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Until the last minute, Chinese officials remained coy about whether Xi would preside over celebrations marking 25 years since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and the swearing in of incoming chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu in person or through a video link.
After all, Xi had remained at home and halted international travel for nearly 900 days since his state visit to Myanmar in January 2020, just days before the city of Wuhan went into lockdown. Since then, China has implemented a strict zero-Covid policy which largely closes the borders and discourages overseas travel.


‘New chapter’ for Hong Kong as Chinese president praises incoming leader John Lee

‘New chapter’ for Hong Kong as Chinese president praises incoming leader John Lee
Because of a Covid surge in Hong Kong registering thousands of daily cases, mainland authorities reportedly prepared several plans. The worst case scenario was for Xi to preside over the ceremonies via video link. In the end, they appeared to agree on a compromise plan which was to have Xi arrive in Hong Kong on Thursday afternoon to attend the welcome dinner and other activities and then spend overnight in neighbouring Shenzhen before returning to Hong Kong for the big day on July 1.

Such elaborate preparations highlight the extreme caution Chinese officials have exercised to shield Xi from the virus at a time when the rest of the world is opening up with leaders of major economies resuming international travel and holding face to face summits.

Having said that, it is interesting to note while Xi was visiting Hong Kong, Vice-President Wang Qishan was in the Philippines, attending the presidential inauguration of Ferdinand Marcos Jnr.

This appears to be the first time that both the country’s president and vice-president were outside mainland China at the same time since 2020.

Xi Jinping says Hong Kong's unique status and advantages must be upheld

But it is too early to say if Xi’s visit to Hong Kong signals an end to their own self-imposed diplomatic isolation. Technically speaking, as Hong Kong is part of China, Xi in fact has not really left the country.

And it is hard to imagine that Xi is likely to venture overseas again in the run-up to the Communist Party’s 20th Congress scheduled some time in autumn when he is widely expected to secure a third term as party chief.

But the absence of China’s leaders from the global stage has proved detrimental for the country’s reputation and image at a time when the world is undergoing drastic changes.

In the years before Covid, Xi frequently travelled overseas to build new partnerships and cement old ties to project China as a responsible world power as its geopolitical tensions with the United States intensified. According to some estimates, Xi spent more days travelling than US counterparts Donald Trump or Joe Biden. In 2019, Xi spent 30 days abroad, visiting 13 countries and attending five major international conferences including G20 meetings in Japan and the BRICS summit in Brazil.

Hong Kong’s former, incoming leaders attend July 1 flag-raising ceremony

It is true that over the past two and a half years, Xi has been busy conducting virtual meetings with world leaders including Biden and heads of the states in the rest of the world. But the lack of face time means that China’s top officials have lost opportunities to engage in person with global political and business leaders to clear up misunderstandings, explain the country’s policies and shape the international agenda.

The implications that neither Xi nor the other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s highest governing council – have not left China are too important to dismiss. Vice-President Wang, 8th in the party’s hierarchy, was the only one who went abroad twice this year, first in March for the inauguration of South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol, and on Thursday for Marcos’ inauguration. Both countries are too geopolitically important for China to send a lower-level official. During the past two and a half years, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and occasionally Yang Jiechi, China’s top official in charge of foreign affairs, have been the principal senior officials to spread Beijing’s messages.

Moreover, the absence of China’s leaders also sends a message that Beijing places a lower priority on international engagements and opinions or that China is turning further inward. This runs contrary to Beijing’s repeated claims that it wants to become a global champion of genuine multilateralism and continue to pursue high-level opening up to the outside world.

The argument that Chinese leaders’ virtual diplomacy can also succeed in achieving their goals is irrelevant. Following that logic, there should be no point in sending envoys overseas or even having embassies.

It is hardly a coincidence that unfavourable views of China have remained at or near historic highs in many of the 19 advanced economies, according to the latest survey published on June 29 by the US-based Pew Research Centre.

Chinese officials publicly put the blame on politicians, media and think tanks in Western countries for framing a negative perception of China. But the truth of the matter is the widening trust gap has put China at a great disadvantage as it spars with the US over international influence.

For instance, China has risked losing Europe as a counterbalance to America’s attempt to form a united front of like-minded countries to isolate China. Traditionally China and Europe had a lot more in common than disagreements as both sides focused on trade and investments. But relations soured significantly over the past two years, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing has not yet condemned.

US, UK and EU officials call for China to honour Hong Kong commitments

Recently, China reportedly sent Wu Hongbo, special envoy for European affairs on a whirlwind damage control tour of the continent with stops in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy.

But it is far from enough. Courting Europe should remain one of China’s top diplomatic priorities but Wu alone cannot get the job done.

China’s leaders cannot afford to wait for the virus to go away before undertaking international travel. The trust gap is widening and it is bad for the country.