Saturday, February 26, 2022



Was Xi Jinping in on it?


What did Xi know and when did he know it?


By Philip J Cunningham


The 2022 Beijing Winter Games went way over budget—putting in high speed trains and creating a wintry environment in the arid hills outside China’s capital doesn’t come cheap—but the real cost is a miscalculation that has set back China’s desire to balance politics and trade and operate in a stable international environment.


Xi Jinping is known for being crafty and cunning, but he may have met his match in Putin who in exchange for attending the Olympics got Xi up on the roof for a cozy convocation of Russia-China ties and then pulled away the ladder.


China’s paramount leader is obsessed with maintaining face, so it’s unlikely for him to retreat from an error of judgement, much akin to Trump and other egotistical leaders.  Like Trump, Xi is very good at putting on a show, the truth content is only of secondary importance, and he’s very good at pulling out all the stops to make sure the show goes on.


Xi’s most recent show, the Beijing Olympics, was pulled off almost without a hitch despite the strong headwinds of diplomatic boycotts, damaging revelations about human rights abuses and a paucity of natural snow. But pull it off he did, giving his propaganda organs a field day of self-congratulatory good cheer.  And he pulled off a diplomatic coup in convincing Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to attend the opening ceremony, the lone statesman of any stature to do so.


But was it a win-win situation?


Looking it in the short-term (short-term here being the duration the Olympics) Putin’s visit alleviated Beijing’s concern with face in the wake of the diplomatic boycott of Western leaders. And since putting on a show for foreigners is not without its domestic component, Xi showed the Chinese people he still had the “right stuff,” which is to say, the mandate. That was his coup, and it paid immediate public relations dividends.


But at what cost?


At the February 4 Diaoyutai State Guest House meeting between Putin and Xi, the two “friends” exchanged confidences and produced a 5,000-word statement shoring up China’s support for Russia and Russia’s support for China, couched in anti-American terms meant to last for decades to come.


It is a fact that Putin invaded Ukraine shortly after his consultation with Xi. Yet there is still much debate about how much detail Putin shared on his plans for Ukraine raising a key question.


What did Xi know and when did he know it?


It has been reported that they spoke of NATO and shared certain anti-American views, but it is not known how much the poker-faced Putin, who likes to keeps his cards close to his chest, revealed about his plans to invade Ukraine and decapitate the Kiev government.


It may be supposed that some military activity was at least hinted at, perhaps in the Donbass region where frictions have simmered for years.


The US had already privately briefed China on Russia’s ominous buildup of troops and then gone public with claims that Putin was preparing to invade, but it’s unknown if the former KGB spy broached his intention to destroy the Kiev government and to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine at gunpoint.


While Putin’s anti-NATO riff was quickly picked up, amplified and repeated by China’s state press, talk of invasion was dismissed cavalierly as US propaganda. Even when the invasion became a fact for all to see, China’s foreign ministry engaged in sophistry to avoid describing it as such.


One cannot help but note that Putin’s declaration of military action was precision timed to begin the day after the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Xi cared enough about the games that Putin’s “restraint” can be evaluated as a way of showing respect.


Even if Xi Jinping is given the benefit of doubt of not knowing the particulars about the planned invasion, he cannot be excused for doubling down his show of support for Putin after the multifaceted attack began, yet the official Chinese readout of the Putin-Xi phone call of February 25 suggests he is doing just that.  As for China’s decision to abstain from criticizing Russia at the Security Council, it’s a hedge, a teacup with leaves that invite reading.


Donald Trump infamously fell for the Rasputin-like charm of Putin, and he fell hard, so much so that even after the stealthy invasion had begun, provoking worldwide outrage, he described the strongman as a “genius.”


Even Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, an old-school nationalist and known ideological opponent of communism, found Putin persuasive enough over the years to enhance ties and boost trade between the two countries. Abe held 27 meetings with Putin and the two were on a first name basis, ostensibly in the hopes of paving a road to the eventual recovery of the disputed “Northern Territories.”


Seeing Putin’s cold-blooded penchant to recover “lost territory” on the edge of Europe, an act of aggression that is unfolding in real time, it is unlikely a deal would ever have been made on the Kurils, but Putin has that kind of persuasive charm. 


Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s experience as foreign minister during the Crimea crisis has served him well, and he quickly joined the US-led international outcry against Putin’s declaration of war, including tough sanctions.


To Abe’s credit, he has reluctantly corrected course, stating that Russia’s invasion was an “unforgiveable act.”  His former advisor, Taniguchi Tomohiko, did not mince words, either. "Japan should never take an ambiguous attitude about nonnegotiable principles."


So what about Xi Jinping? Was he caught flat-footed by Putin’s deceptive charm or is he in on it as a co-conspirator? Or perhaps an unwitting co-conspirator? Was he played?


With the politically weighty “Two Meetings” scheduled to open in Beijing next week, China’s autocratic leader is facing domestic headwinds as well. No one’s expecting Xi’s rivals and doubters in the party to openly oppose him, but they might succeed in hemming him in a little bit, and that could have long-term consequences.

Saturday, February 19, 2022



(first published in SCMP as "A bipolar world is re-emerging, as China and Russia join hands")


  •  In a joint statement on a new era of international relations, Xi and Putin have thrown down the gauntlet to the US-led world order
  • Those who thought history had come to an end with the collapse of communism in the USSR might have another think coming

Philip J. Cunningham 


Beijing and Moscow have good reason to feel isolated and unloved these days, and in their loneliness they have found each other. The two erstwhile fraternal communist giants are closer to an alliance than they have been since Mao Zedong broke with Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.


There’s still plenty of disparity between the national interests of China and Russia, but faced by containment on all sides, they are finding important points in common, too.


China has an economy six times that of Russia’s, but what Russian President Vladimir Putin lacks in wealth and manpower can to some extent be addressed by his unblinking willingness to engage in asymmetrical battles against better-equipped adversaries.


More troubling, not just for Putin’s foes but for the planet in general, has been Putin raising the spectre of a nuclear attack.


Despite its brevity and complications in Ukraine, Putin’s visit to Beijing during the Winter Olympics was more than a photo opportunity. After his meeting with President Xi Jinping, the two leaders issued a 5,000-word joint statement about a shared vision for international relations in a new era.


Journalist Robert Scheer describes the statement as a “historic articulation of the major shift under way from the unipolar world that has existed since the fall of the Soviet Union”.


Xi and Putin have, for now, joined forces to throw down the gauntlet to the US-led world order.


A week later, President Joe Bidens White House released the “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States”, a mix of democratic blather and muscular plans for containment.


“Enemies of My Enemy: How Fear of China Is Forging a New World Order” by Michael Beckley, published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, gives useful background to the current rearranging of the global chessboard.


Although Beckley’s conclusion that the US must prevail is open to question, he argues rather convincingly that niceties like “the liberal order” don’t exist in a vacuum but need an enemy.


And it takes a truly frightening enemy to get self-interested nations to subordinate their own best interests to those of a larger grouping. Nato is a prime example of a grouping built and maintained on fear.


The Axis-versus-Allies fight divided the world into camps in the second world war, while the Cold War, which was mercifully more smoke than fire, was never short on fear. The “free world” wasn’t uniformly free, but it was effectively united against the “Reds”. Allies were courted and whipped into line based on terrors both real and imagined.


The Sino-Soviet split brought the fault lines of the Red world into the open, cracking the bipolar order. This led to the Sino-American rapprochement, which served to corner Russia.


The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a political earthquake that informs the slightly paranoid world view of Xi and Putin to this day.


The old duality began to erode and, depending on where you stood, either history had come to an end, with the US and its capitalist allies running a victory lap around the rubble of the discredited communist system, or as it might appear from Moscow and Beijing, it was not the end of history but merely a chapter in which it was necessary to lay low.


During the Deng Xiaoping years, and those of his like-minded successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China made a concerted effort to guard its ambition and bide its time, but that’s not to say China ever really embraced a unipolar world with the US in charge.


There were genuine feel-good moments during the high tide of cultural exchange and booming trade, but a careful read of what China was saying all along suggests that the much-heralded US-China partnership was provisional.


“You Should Look Back”, by Geremie Barmé for China Heritage, is a useful China watcher’s compendium which suggests not so much that China has changed under Xi, as that it has been going in this direction all along.


In Russia, KGB-trained martial arts enthusiast Putin stepped into the ring with a sense of purpose and he is still in the ring, still trying to restore lost glory and lost territory.


In Ukraine today, moves and countermoves by the newly assertive Russia and the US are attempts to get the other side to blink first.


Between Nato, G7 and the Quad, the US has many more allies than China and Russia combined. It’s the isolation of Moscow and Beijing which makes the growing closeness meaningful, even if they are not strictly allies.


Trade between the two giant neighbours would go a long way towards reducing the impact of sanctions, and having each other’s back could make a huge difference if fighting breaks out in either realm.


Philip J. Cunningham has been a regular visitor to China since 1983, working as a tour guide, TV producer, freelance writer, independent scholar and teacher


Sunday, February 13, 2022



Eileen Gu wins gold medal (Reuters)

By Philip J Cunningham


To be biracial in a world of binary thinking and racial stereotyping is not easy; to be binational only adds to the challenge.

Olympic gold-medalist Eileen Gu, affectionately known in China as the “snow princess” has ignited an international firestorm about nationality and clashing hot takes on what it means to belong to a country.

“When I’m in the U.S., I’m American,” she told reporters, “but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”

This plainly-expressed sentiment has gotten many mainstream commentators bent out of shape, but it’s got many more people thinking about identity, race and nationality in a good way, a way that is refreshing departure from received wisdom.

San Francisco-born and raised, Eileen Gu Ai-Ling is the child of a Chinese mother and an American father of undisclosed identity. She is biracial, and appears to have dual nationality, which US law recognizes but Chinese law does not.

Then again, China is not a country where the rule of law consistently trumps other considerations. During detention in Canada, Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou was found to hold seven passports. In keeping with China’s practice of extending perks and privileges to a select few, it is likely an exception was made for Gu because she has been deemed to serve China’s national interest.

It should also be noted that American citizens can’t just give up citizenship at will, but must go through a costly and arduous bureaucratic procedure to rid themselves of native-born belonging to the USA.

The media fascination with Eileen Gu’s nationality brings to mind another famous biracial American by the name of Barack Obama.  He, too, had to navigate the identity tightrope of a dual identity, and he, too, hardly knew his father.

But unlike Eileen Gu, who is as tight-lipped about her cipher of a dad as she is about her preferred citizenship, Barack Obama speaks openly and fondly about the father he never knew, poignantly reconstructed in “Dreams of My Father.

As a politician and president, Barack Obama was dogged by “birther” conspiracy theories from the outset. The intensity and persistence of ill-sourced claims sheds more light on the racially-tinged unease of his critics, including his successor as president, Donald Trump, than on the particulars of his case.

But even well-known individuals are not without their mysteries. A recent article suggests that Obama’s father was a CIA asset in Africa.

Eileen Gu has inadvertently touched a raw nerve. Given the pandemic blues, political strife, social unrest and signs of American imperial decline in the face of increasingly bold and brash challenges from Beijing, the idea of a smart, preppy, well-spoken young woman from California electing not to represent the US surely rankles some.

It’s not just that she chose Team China that riles her critics. She’s also attractive and accomplished, equally proud of China as America, and unapologetic, too, all of which stimulates the trolls and makes the haters hit on her even more. Inasmuch as Gu appears to be having her cake and eating it too, she causes indigestion in others without uttering a word.

She is eloquent and outspoken, optimistic and egotistical, but she also can toe the line when need be. She studiously refused, six times by one count, to answer foreign journalist questions in Beijing about whether or not she renounced her American citizenship as Chinese law ostensibly requires.

That an "all-American" youth born and raised in San Francisco--the stellar athlete is an ace student admitted to Stanford--would chose to represent China over the US is hard for many to process.

But a more positive take on her ambivalence is that she is the harbinger of a world where the old rules--you’re either this or your that--don’t hold as tightly as before. Is she on to something? Is it possible she represents a paradigm shift in the way young people look at the world?

Old school Americans, both native born and naturalized, understood you had to chose sides and stick with it. German Americans and Italian Americans fought bravely and unequivocally for the US on the front lines of two world wars, and Japanese Americans, though denied the chance to fight Japan due to the insecurities of Euro-Americans about their loyalty, fought with great courage and patriotism in the European theatre of war.

Because we live in a world in where zero-sum wars are a tragic legacy, and the possibility of future conflict can’t be discounted entirely, it doesn’t sit well with conventional thinking to say you are equally on this side and equally on that side.

Is it possible, to borrow a concept pioneered in no small part on the streets of San Francisco, that the old binary categories no longer apply?

The age-old male/female dichotomy is being resisted by a new generation informed by notions of gender fluidity, bisexuality, and embracing all the colors of the rainbow. It’s about being what one wants to be by taking pride and control of one’s identity.

During her February 8, 2022 press conference in Beijing, Eileen Gu clearly expressed her desire to “live her best life.”  She does not seek to make other people happy by being what they want her to be.

As China’s guest athlete of the hour, already celebrated in a drone display and lavish sponsorship deals, she doesn’t conform with conventional notions of race, nationalism and citizenship.

In time, reactionary pressures may force her to make a more binary choice, but for the moment she’s having it all, doing it her way, representing a new kind of world citizen, proud of both sides, defiant in her embrace of duality.


Wednesday, February 2, 2022



Commentary / World

Deja vu: Putin, another Chinese Olympics and rumors of war

Russian forces invaded Georgia on the same day as the 2008 Beijing Games kicked off

The last time Russia’s paramount leader, Vladimir Putin, attended the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Beijing, the logistics went smoothly enough and the pageantry was world class, though distressing reports of Moscow’s invasion of Georgia distracted from an otherwise good show.

Fighting had broken out on Aug. 1, 2008, between Russian-backed separatists and Georgian government forces, but Russia’s air force did not commence attacks until the eighth day of the eighth month, just as the Olympics were opening on a date deemed auspicious by the Chinese hosts. A poker-faced Putin sat down in his VIP box in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium for the lavish opening ceremony choreographed by the legendary filmmaker Zhang Yimou as Russia’s military incursion into Georgia commenced and the first Russian casualties were recorded. Putin reportedly got real-time updates from the front during the festivities and rushed home soon afterward.

On Friday, Putin will again make a symbolic show of face at an Olympic opening ceremony staged in Beijing, and again his large entourage will again be whisked in and out of the Bird’s Nest with state-of-the-art security and disciplined traffic control. His delegation will be accorded all the VIP creature comforts worthy of an honored guest, although the former KGB agent is sufficiently conversant with the stealthy art of poisoning that he reportedly refuses to eat anything prepared outside of Russia.

It’s the tale of two Olympics in one city, two opening ceremonies held 14 years apart in the same stadium, attended by the same Russian strongman.

This time around, the Russian leader’s visit to the Games again brings with it rumors of war and, while his willingness to attend is valued by Beijing for protocol and saving diplomatic face, the timing is not propitious.

The Winter Games, less popular for a world audience than the Summer Games to begin with, have been tainted by diplomatic boycotts and the authoritarian flexing of Beijing. What’s more, ordinary spectators are banned, draconian lockdowns are ongoing and the press corps is diminished due to the burden of political restrictions. Athletes, including those from Russia and Ukraine, will bump elbows inside a small bubble, but paeans to peace and related festivities have been scaled down due to the pandemic.

It’s hard to see how the incredibly shrinking Winter Games will provide the Russian leader with the kind of media cover he found last time around when the whole world had its eyes on Beijing.

Real world tensions are distracting attention from the showmanship of the Olympics, and not the other way around, as was the case during the Russian incursion into Georgia in August 2008.

Putin’s Olympic photo op is an uncomfortable reminder to a world on edge that a catastrophic war with Ukraine still remains in the offing.

As if the pandemic wasn’t worry enough.

China is betting on its remarkably low COVID-19 infection rate and its ability to impose draconian lockdowns and strict quarantine on short notice to achieve what eluded Tokyo; a COVID-19-proof Olympics. The pandemic caused Tokyo to postpone the much-anticipated 2020 Summer Olympics — and when they finally got staged a year later, it was to largely empty venues.

Putin is flying into Beijing at great expense to spend a few hours in a bird’s nest. The eye-catching centerpiece of both Beijing Olympics, the National Stadium, was designed by Ai Weiwei, a provocative artist who has long since fallen foul of the government in his homeland and is currently in exile. Ai’s iconic masterwork remains a centerpiece of Olympic pomp and ceremony. It helped Beijing make a successful second bid without having to commit to building a new stadium.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s half-hearted diplomatic boycott of the Games has not snowballed into a game-ruining race for the exits, and the Bird’s Nest, even half empty, is still a photogenic venue. Given the absence of known COVID-19 cases in Beijing, other than a clamped down handful, it may still be possible for Beijing to extract a public relations victory from the jaws of diplomatic dissent and COVID-19 fears.

But what about war?

U.S. President Biden has stated there is a distinct possibility of Ukraine being invaded by Russia in February, which throws a lot of shade on the optics of Putin’s visit to Beijing.

Is Beijing’s desire to save diplomatic face inadvertently lending credibility to a belligerent on the eve of an attack?

A Russian attack on Ukraine undoes the gains of China’s Belt and Road outreach in Ukraine, which is the leading supplier of corn to China and a natural link between Europe and Asia?

Even if it doesn’t coincide with an invasion this time, Putin’s Beijing junket is not likely to produce the kind of win-win situation China was looking for when it first sent out VIP invitations for the Games.

Philip J. Cunningham is a freelance writer on East Asian politics, author of “Tiananmen Moon” and “Tokyo Crush.”