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Foreign Policy

Geographic and Political Contrasts

Jun 06, 2023

China recently hosted the Central Asia summit in the old imperial capital of Xi’an, where ancient city halls, walls and temples, pagodas and tombs are unusually well-preserved.  In contrast, Japan simultaneously hosted the G7 meet in modern Hiroshima, a city rebuilt from scratch after atomic obliteration. 

One summit was high on theatrics, architectural splendor and choreographed awe, while the other was a rather more routine hotel-style conference held in relatively cramped venues, including a working meal at a small round table. 

The settings couldn’t be more different, but Xi’an and Hiroshima share the commonality of being the ancestral hometowns of the two respective leaders and hosts. 

Though Xi Jinping was raised in Beijing, his family hails from Shaanxi Province, of which Xi’an is the capital. Kishida Fumio grew up in Tokyo, but his family is from Hiroshima. More to the point, both men did hometown stints in a political capacity, Xi as a rural cadre in Liangjiahe Village and Kishida as parliamentary representative of Hiroshima. 

The cities are so different that making comparisons of them as summit settings is a stretch. Hiroshima was a humble fishing village in the marshy Ota River delta during the many centuries when Xi’an, or Chang’an, stood not only as a powerful dynastic capital of China, but was for a long time, was one of the biggest, most culturally rich cosmopolitan cities in the world. 

Hiroshima’s location facing the Seto Inland Sea led to its growth as a regional trading center, and feudal castle town, and dating from the Meiji period onward, an industrial hub in western Japan. Hiroshima Castle was the strategic command center from which Japan waged war on China in 1894-5, and neighboring Kure was a key naval port throughout Japan’s aggressive Pacific War. 

Although the ghastly 1945 atomic bombing took the lives mostly of civilians, including thousands of slave laborers from Korea, U.S. authorities cited Hiroshima’s military role among various excuses for the inexcusable bombing. 

Hiroshima today offers a contemporary tale of rebirth, a gleaming modern city built from the ashes of apocalyptic destruction. Yet in its own way, Xi’an in its incarnation as Chang’an, is the ultimate phoenix rising from ashes, having been the site of the rise and fall of the Qin, Han, Tang and other key dynasties over the course of several millennia. 

Chang’an was also a key hub of commerce and cultural diversity on the fabled Silk Road, serving as part of a tenuous link between East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. 

Xi’an has been a pronounced backwater in more recent times, indeed it was its very isolation and lack of infrastructure links that made it useful for the Chinese communists, then fleeing KMT pursuit, to build a remote, off-the-map liberated zone north of the city in Yanan. 

In today’s geographic terms, Xi’an is a landlocked metropolis locked deep in China’s hinterland, far from any port, while Hiroshima is an outward-facing marine city intimately linked with global commerce by water. 

The two men hosting the two unrelated, simultaneous summits offer a study in contrast as national leaders. Both men, baby boomers in demographic terms, nurtured ambitions from an early age but played long waiting games before becoming the beneficiaries of fate. The path forward for both was inadvertently cleared by the abrupt and unexpected demise of formidable colleagues and rivals. 

The criminal wrongdoings of the charismatic Bo Xilai rid Xi Jinping of a popular fellow contender for power. An assassin’s bullet ended the life and lengthy career of Abe Shinzo, in whose shadow Kishida had worked for many years. The short tenure of Abe’s troubled successor Suga Yoshihide ultimately provided Kishida the opportunity to run for and win the top slot as Prime Minister. 

The influence of personal differences is further evident in the politics of each summit. Unlike many of his generation who studied abroad, Xi elected to stay in the countryside and climb up the ranks as a CCP cadre at home. This initially led to an insular career in various Chinese provinces but eventually accrued to his benefit as a communist party leader with strong claims of being in touch with farmers and rural folk in China. The hinterland, far from being a political disadvantage, became Xi’s political touchstone. Xi has traveled abroad, including a visit to rural Iowa in the U.S. but his career has focused mostly on domestic issues in China. 

Xi, the son of first generation communist leader Xi Zhongxun, famously lamented the collapse of Soviet communism and remains an ardent proponent of Leninist style rule, which goes a long way to explain why he is more in his element dealing with the former states of the Soviet Union, including Putin’s Russia, but also the five Central Asian states where Soviet cultural influences and political habits remain strong. 

The Central Asia summit is a natural fit for his worldview. 

Kishida, in contrast, scores high on any cosmopolitan index. He attended elementary school in Queens, NY, and eventually became Japan’s longest serving Foreign Minister. This background paid great dividends at the G7 summit where he not only urged countries such as South Korea, India and Brazil to participate, but scored the unexpected coup of getting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to fly in on short notice. 

Both summits were successful on their own terms, and both teach us something about the geographic and political realities of the two respective host countries, China and Japan. 

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