Why China’s Xi Jinping is missing from the U.N. General Assembly


One of the most vocal defenders of globalization and talks with North Korea is sitting out the world’s biggest gathering devoted to them.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is not expected to attend the United Nations General Assembly this week, where heads of state will contemplate issues key to the nation — including how to respond to the reclusive state and the future of the Paris climate agreement.

The absence is surprising for a leader who has pushed a more assertive, globally engaged China.

Xi arrived at his first U.N. assembly in 2015 with a gift of 8,000 peacekeeping troops and a $1-billion pledge for peace and development. This time, Chinese officials said only that Wang Yi, the foreign minister, is leading a delegation. State media have barely mentioned the event.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also is staying away, although a spokesman made it clear he’s opted to attend joint military exercises with Belarus.

The answer to Xi’s nonappearance may lie with the country’s complex internal politics. The U.N. session comes a month before China’s twice-a-decade party congress. This year is especially important because it is expected to replace about half of the country’s top leadership and reveal the full extent of Xi’s influence. The Congress marks the halfway point of his term, and some analysts expect he will try to stay in power.

There are indications that major party leadership spots “are still up for grabs,” said Willy Lam, a leading China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “So it’s imperative Xi Jinping stay in Beijing and not allow his enemies to pick up momentum when he’s away.”

Officials have worked to ward off drama ahead of the meetings, from clamping down on investment abroad to banning television shows during prime time that appear “too entertaining.”

Xi’s presence at the session could toss uncertainty into these final few weeks. That’s heightened by President Trump’s debut speech at the U.N. on Tuesday and tensions surrounding China’s role in stemming the nuclear ambitions of North Korea.

“Beijing doesn’t want to be the target of multiple countries and multiple countries’ media pointing their fingers at China,” Lam said.

Xi, in some regards, already had his moment. He addressed the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva in January and portrayed China as a global leader committed to climate change. On that same visit, he gave a robust defense of free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

And even if Xi is not physically present, his phone conversation on Monday with Trump signaled continued engagement.

Foreign Minister Yi “will give a full account of China’s stances and propositions on the international landscape,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said last week.

He intends to work with other U.N. members, he added, to “uphold world peace and stability.”

By Jessica Meyers


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here