Chinese President Xi Jinping met with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula Van der Leyen on April 6, 2023.
Decorative pandas and spring flowers adorned the meeting rooms where artful diplomatic gestures reminiscent of Zhou Enlai blossomed in Beijing during the first week of April, in what might be thought of as a spring charm offensive in foreign policy terms.
The iconic Chinese actress Gong Li and her husband Jean-Michel Jarre accompanied the French delegation, helping to get things off to an auspicious start in cultural terms. Visiting President Emmanuel Macron of France got the full red carpet treatment with Xi greeting him personally outside the Great Hall of the People accompanied by a crisp military review and a 21-gun salute. The lengthy meetings between the two leaders were more focused on finding common ground rather than airing differences.
The following day, the French commercial magnates who traveled with Macron to China got a rare small-room meeting with the generally aloof Chinese leader. The atmosphere appeared to be unusually casual, perhaps on account of the Chinese hosts trying to meet their guests halfway, assuming an unfamiliarity with the fine points of Great Hall of the People ceremonial etiquette. Participants could be seen snapping pictures, phones held overhead, and the decorum was casual, with bags and backpacks left beside seats on the carpet. Everyone wore masks except for Xi and Macron. The French business delegation wore matching masks decorated with small tricolor flags.
Xi’s sessions with Macron can be understood as a charm offensive intent of prying France free from the grip of the U.S. and other Western allies. He impressed Macron with the need for “greater democracy in international relations” which is essentially a way of saying that democracies should treat non-democracies with respect and not fall for what he described as “playing up the so-called ‘democracy vs authoritarianism’ narrative and stoking a new Cold War that brings division and confrontation to the world.”
The next meeting also included Macron, this time in conjunction with European Commission President Ursula Van der Leyen. The round table at the meeting venue might suggest, at first glance, equality in the best of European tradition, but the layout of the meeting room clearly privileged host Xi, and not just because the CCTV cameras insist on covering it that way. Xi was seated in between the other two in the center of the table in the center of a room directly in front of the Chinese flag.
Behind the flag was a huge mural of the Forbidden City, and Xi’s seat was in perfect alignment with the imperial north-south axis of Beijing’s historical stronghold. In days of yore, only emperors could walk the middle line and central staircases of the Forbidden City, the axis representing a line of power befitting imperial grandeur.
The virtual “fengshui” of the mural cleverly builds on this tradition, casting Xi as the most-honored host. CCTV cameramen were quick to pick up on the significance of this and zoomed in on the “zhong zhou xian” which as most Beijingers know, runs through Tiananmen Square, including the national flag pole and the gate under the Mao portrait. From there the powerful line runs straight back through the heart of the Forbidden City and on to Jingshan Hill and key locations beyond, including the Olympic grounds. Even in today’s world, geomancy matters.
Xi’s meeting with Ursula Von der Leyen was low-key compared to the pomp and ceremony accorded to Macron, suggesting that China prefers dealing with single nation states rather than regional blocs. Judging from the transcripts and available footage, Van der Leyen got an avuncular talking to. When it was her turn to speak, she brought up human rights but it did not generate meaningful discussion. Instead Xi tried to keep the focus on win-win economics, noting that, “The European side is welcome to continue to share China's development dividends.”
In an already busy news cycle there was a small diplomatic milestone on the sidelines. Foreign Minister Qin Gang, formerly China’s ambassador to the U.S., presided over a trust-building meeting between the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Beijing, resulting in a group handshake and restoration of ties. Such a meeting would have been hard to imagine even a year ago, let alone with Beijing as a venue.
Finally, there was the undeniable presence of Taiwan hovering in the background, and not always in the background, during the early spring news cycle. On the one hand, Ma Ying-jeou, who was president of Taiwan from 2008 to 2016 took an extensive tour of the mainland as a representative of Taiwan’s KMT party. Although his one-China rhetoric differs from that of Beijing, his approach is seen as sufficiently conciliatory as to warrant a warm welcome. Ma toured central China, riding trains, visiting rice fields, and test-driving, or at least posing for the cameras in such a way that he appeared to be celebrating Chinese industrial and agricultural accomplishments. He took time to mourn the victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and visited the graves of his ancestor’s in Hunan Province, both gestures rich in cross-Straits significance.
On the other hand, Taiwan’s current President, the Cornell-educated Tsai Ing-wen, made a controversial stopover in Los Angeles where she met Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy at the Reagan Presidential Library. Beijing’s response was vociferous but limited to incendiary rhetoric, at least while Macron and Ma were still in China. This over-reaction drew the only false note in what was otherwise an exemplary week in Chinese diplomacy, the kind of artful diplomacy that Zhou Enlai excelled at in a time very different from the present moment.
That Tsai’s overtures for U.S. support, and the U.S.’ eagerness to show its support of Taiwan irritating Beijing is to be expected. That it should turn into a casus belli as almost happened with the over-reaction to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summer is not in China’s best interests, nor is it effective diplomacy in the dignified tradition of Zhou.