Can US & China keep things calm ahead of Biden-Xi meeting?
China’s second highest-ranking leader, former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, died suddenly late last week of a heart attack, aged 68. An economist, the English-speaking Li was known for his openness to private business and Western ideas. He and Xi Jinping did not see eye-to-eye on economic policy, and as Xi’s power grew, Li was sidelined and notably forced out of the Party’s Standing Committee last October, two years short of the usual retirement age of 70. Li was critical of the damage caused by Xi's heavyhanded zero-COVID approach to both the economy and average Chinese citizens.
While the official response to Li’s death has been muted, there has been an outpouring of emotion within China, notably on social media. Already, there are reports of a crackdown on VPN use to reduce access to the parts of the internet not controlled by the Communist Party. The fear is that mourning for a popular, liberal, former leader could spur criticism of Xi’s administration at a time of general economic malaise – just as the death of Premier Zhou Enlai triggered the “democracy wall” movement of the late 1970s, and grief for Party leader Hu Yaobang gave rise to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
Li’s death also comes just before the planned meeting between Xi and US President Joe Biden in San Francisco in mid-November. The high-level sitdown would cap a series of meetings between the White House and other Chinese leaders, including one between Biden and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi last Friday in Washington.
But Yi warned after that meeting that the "road to the San Francisco summit will not be a smooth one” and said that instead China and the U.S. should "return to Bali.” He was referring to the time Biden and Xi met – at the Group of 20 summit in Bali last November, where the two leaders discussed Taiwan, competition, and communication.
Still, there are signs that China and the US are keen to mend some fences. Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s trip to China last week saw him meet with both Wang and Xi, which came on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s visit to China. The recent flurry of diplomacy signals that both countries want to improve ties ahead of Xi’s meeting with Biden – and well before Taiwan’s presidential elections in January.