Argument

The No-Show

What's really behind Vladimir Putin's surprising decision to skip the G-8 summit?

Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision not to attend the G-8 summit and send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a stand-in has been seen by many as a bold snub to Washington and has raised important questions about the Russian leader's motivations. Beyond that looms the larger, and much more important, question about the future of Russia's foreign policy and its relations with the West. What if Putin's real motives, however, are exactly as advertised by his Kremlin aides -- that he needs to focus on forming a new government at home? If that's true, it offers a remarkable insight into the process of power balancing among the clans that make up Russia's cabinet. Either way, it's a hell of a way to begin a new term.

Unlike Putin and Medvedev's announcement last September that they had long planned to swap places, the G-8 decision must have been made only in the last few days. When Putin announced that he would not attend the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago, he did confirm for the May 18-19 G-8 summit, which was then moved to Camp David by Barack Obama's administration. Until early May, U.S. and Russian diplomats were working hard on the Obama-Putin meeting to be held at the White House on the margins of the G-8 summit. Putin's public statements on the eve of his May 7 inauguration indicated his willingness to work with the United States on matters of mutual interest and even "go really far" in that direction, as his foreign-policy aide put it. For that, of course, Putin requires a working personal relationship with Obama, the current and likely future president of the United States. Snubbing him would make no sense.

So, something must have happened quite recently to make Putin change his mind. Of recent developments, two things stand out: the demonstrations in Moscow on the eve of and on Inauguration Day and the remarkable tardiness in the shaping of the "Medvedev cabinet." The May 6 clashes with the police in the streets of Moscow added more bad press to Putin's mountain of criticism in the Western media. Were he to show up at the White House, he would run the risk of being asked uncomfortable questions at a Rose Garden news conference. Putin's irritation with the U.S. government's support for Russian NGOs active in election monitoring is well known, as is his criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department. The no-show at the media-heavy ritual of the G-8 summit, most of whose leaders congratulated Putin on his reelection only grudgingly or skipped congratulations altogether, thus appears to be a retaliatory strike.

It probably was not. Putin is anything but media-shy. In your face is what he likes. The May 6 Moscow "march of millions" attracted fewer people, despite the fine weather, than the massive February event a month before the presidential election, held in bitter cold. The march had no effect on Putin's inauguration and was overshadowed on the world scene by the French and Greek elections that same weekend. Western criticisms notwithstanding, Putin feels a winner -- and he certainly looked that way on election night. If anything, he likely would enjoy the spectacle of coming back to claim his place among the world's most powerful leaders, in spite of all the hopes, entreaties, and admonitions that he would not. Doing that in the United States, in particular, would have been a personal triumph and humiliation of his foreign foes.

But what looked initially a technical exercise -- forming the new cabinet -- appears less of a formality. Moscow is awash with contradictory rumors about who's in and who's out, and the general confusion is palpable. The truth is, the Russian government is a coalition, but not of political parties (which are insignificant as far as actual governing goes) as much as of the country's most powerful clans -- a diverse group that ranges from the titans of energy, metals, or other branches of industry to the captains of state-owned enterprises; from Putin's friends, Boris Yeltsin's old family, and Medvedev's classmates to the power players in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other regions.

The cabinet is not so much about policy as such, but about to whom and where money flows. Who controls what is essential to stability within the Russian elite who rule and own Russia at the same time. Arbitrating, brokering, and ultimately deciding the who and what in this situation is not something the new and once-again prime minister, Medvedev, can do alone. In a system where manual control takes the place of institutions, Putin is irreplaceable. The irony of the prime minister being sent on a mission abroad while the president single-handedly pulls the strings and forms his government for him underlines their respective roles -- and Medvedev's puppet status.

Putin's decision to stay away from Camp David means that he is putting the stability of his power structure above his diplomatic engagements abroad. This is not unusual for politicians. It also suggests, however, that striking the proper balance among the clans has become more difficult. If Putin, in his 13th year in power, is finding this a tricky task, the future of manual control does not seem bright.

Increasingly, Moscow's elites may think of turning to a more institutionalized method of balancing -- something of an agreement on the rules of the game, and an agreement, of course, to police that agreement -- so as to prevent any one clan from gaining too much power. When this happens, Russia's current absolute monarchy will evolve into a limited one. Putin believes, however, that Russia, in his time, can only be held together from above by a popular leader: himself. Call it authoritarianism with the consent of the governed.

Even if Putin's decision was primarily dictated by domestic concerns, his no-show will have foreign-policy implications. The G-8, which many in the West see as flawed because of Russia's membership -- and perhaps as overtaken by the economic realities of a changing world, better reflected in the G-20 -- is also being downgraded in the Kremlin's eyes. (Throughout the 1990s, the G-7+1 was the formula for Russian participation, but this was changed to the G-8 by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1998.) For Moscow, this is less a symbol of Russia's "belonging" to the global leadership team and more of a privileged contact zone, giving Russians access to the West, but without an obligation to align with it.

In the G-20, Russians are less conspicuous, but are also less put on the spot. The fact that Putin has decided to attend the G-20 summit in Las Cabos, Mexico, in June does not mean that he values the larger gathering more. Putin, the ultimate transactional politician, frankly hates international jamborees, seeing them as a waste of time. Mexico would have been a perfect destination for Medvedev, if only Putin had been able to travel to Camp David. Instead, now he has to make the trip in order to meet the only person whom he really wanted to talk to on the canceled trip to the United States: Barack Obama.

Much has been made in the media that Putin is now scheduled to visit China before he sees Obama in Mexico. There is less here than meets the eye, however. China and the United States are both hugely important to Russia, and an early visit to China -- to attend the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- makes a lot of sense, especially in view of political developments there ahead of the leadership change this October. Putin is unlikely, however, to build an axis with Beijing to spite Washington. Any remake of the Sino-Soviet alliance would just bring more trouble to the two countries than help advance their common interests, and it would be immensely awkward to operate.

With Putin formally back in the Kremlin, Russia's foreign policy will probably focus on gaining global expertise for domestic economic modernization, helping large international companies buy into Russia, promoting a form of global governance that would balance the West's dominance by means of such formal bodies as the U.N. Security Council and such informal ones as the BRICS, and protecting Russian security interests against threats both real and perceived, such as U.S.-NATO missile defense in Europe, by means of a massive rearmament program. Putin needs a meeting with Obama to determine how much alignment on these issues there can be between the two of them -- and how much he can get away with. Medvedev, at Camp David, will simply be on a reconnaissance mission.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Argument

Shanghaied

Why you shouldn't believe everything you read about China. Hint: not even the journalists really know what’s going on.

When I reported in China from 2005 to 2011 it was remarkable how little the foreign correspondent community -- myself included -- really knew about what was going on in the top ranks of the Communist Party.

Ministers and agency heads occasionally talk to the foreign press; senior leaders almost never do. Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the governing body that runs China, only Premier Wen Jiabao answers questions with any regularity at press conferences (he holds one every year); he's also pretty much the only figure who has given interviews with foreign media. But when the Financial Times spoke with him in London in 2009, there were 15 other ministers and senior officials in the room, sitting in rows of chairs facing Wen. It was never clear if they were there to support or to monitor him.

Politics was a black box, walled off from the rest of the country in its own private courtyard. In its place are courtly rituals, such as the jaw-dropping National Day parades held every decade and the Party Congress planned for this autumn in the Great Hall of the People. That's when the hitherto unknown members of the next Standing Committee will make their debut in their new positions. Chinese people, foreign journalists -- and, correspondingly, the rest of the world -- will on that day learn the identity of China's new leaders and how they rank by the order in which they file on stage. But not until then.

That, anyway, was how things were supposed to work. Over the last three months, that carefully crafted script has seemingly been torn to shreds. The messy downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, once widely tipped for a place in the new magic circle, has thrust Chinese politics onto front pages across the world. The surprising thing about the Bo case is not that he was ousted -- his shameless self-promotion and ruthless tactics always made him a strong candidate for a back-room putsch -- but the sheer torrent of information that has come out about Bo and his family. It is as if modern China, protected by its Great Firewall and army of censors, has in one swoop entered the 24/7 news era, with its mixture of well-informed exclusives and shameless rumor-mongering.

To recap for anyone who has missed the story -- and how could you? -- it all began to fall apart in February when Wang Lijun, Chongqing's police chief and one of Bo's right-hand men, suddenly appeared in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, 300 miles away, seeking refuge. By some accounts, he asked for asylum, by others he wanted a place to hide while central government security officials from Beijing arrived, so that he would not be turned over to Bo's police. Whatever the plan, he started to talk, leading to Bo's ouster.

Since then, international readers have been treated to a tour de force of foreign correspondence, shining more light on the realities of power in China in a few weeks than over the last few years. First came the Bo family connection to the suspicious death of Neil Heywood, an English businessman who had a soft spot for linen suits and who helped win Bo's son Guagua a place at Harrow, one of Britain's most exclusive boarding schools. Beijing has now confirmed that Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, is under investigation over Heywood's murder. Businessmen have since come forward with tales of being extorted by Bo's cronies in Chongqing and, in some cases, tortured. Bo was even somehow able to bug the phones of other senior leaders, according to one article.

Within weeks of his dismissal, the foreign media had also revealed that the extended family of Bo, who built his reputation as a crusader against corruption and had an official salary of around $1,500 a month, had amassed a fortune that Bloomberg put at $136 million. There were directorships on important state-owned companies, dubious share awards, and sweetheart business ventures with the state, such as providing fire extinguishers to government buildings. Western news was filled with tales of torture, murder, and corruption -- the charge sheet of a gangster boss rather than a politician.

But as the scandal moves from the immediate circumstances to the broader political fallout, the Bo case could become harder to report. Political stories in China can be like quicksand. White House reporters might not get to talk too often to the president, but they can speak to people who were in the room with him when he makes a decision. In China, foreign reporters have to rely on more removed sources: advisors, Chinese journalists, foreigners who have recently met senior leaders, and lower-level bureaucrats. All sources have an agenda, but the more tenuous their link to power, the harder it can be to decode their bias -- or assess their credibility. Even with reporting on Bo's fall, stories about his phone-tapping antics and links to the death of Heywood depended heavily on anonymous sources. Trying to gauge the political machinations of a group of a few dozen standing committee members, kingmakers, and PLA generals is at best an imperfect task when much of the information is coming third-hand.

At the same time, having been initially stumped by the uncertainty over Bo's fate, the propaganda authorities now seem to be stepping up their efforts to try and mold the narrative -- even if sometimes in a pretty clumsy manner. Time's Hannah Beech says that three separate sources in the space of one day repeated the same talking points, describing Bo to her as being like Adolf Hitler. Two others told her his behavior was reminiscent of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Even for hack propaganda officials, the leap from Hitler to Lewinsky is quite a stretch.

But for the Beijing press corps, which finally has an eager audience, the biggest temptation is to turn the Bo saga into a broader political morality play between the hardliners who have stifled political reform since the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the liberal reformers, if there indeed are any. If Bo, who had become something of a hero to Chinese leftists, is the villain of the play with his trampling of the rule of law, then Wen has been auditioning for the role of hero. Shortly before Bo's ouster, he warned about the danger of a "new Cultural Revolution" and has since talked about "smashing" vested interests in the party.

But that's only one side of the story. The reporters in China trying to sift through the hints and rumors about political reform face the peril of access -- the tricky reality that Chinese liberals and human rights activists tend to view foreign journalists as sympathetic to their views and are more likely to return their calls. The security types, propaganda officials, hard-line generals, and other conservative heavyweights do not. I would be quite surprised, for instance, if any foreign reporter had ever met Zhou Yongkang since he became China's security chief five years ago -- our occasional requests for an interview were usually greeted with a nervous laugh. But in that time, he has often been the power-behind-the-throne, the person responsible the waves of crackdowns on dissidents and lawyers. He was the Chinese official on the stage in Pyongyang on the day in 2010 when Kim Jong-il presented his son as his successor. Chinese officials would occasionally drop his name (but nothing more) into conversation with a raised eyebrow, as if that is all they need to say to explain how a situation would develop.  

So what actually is happening in China, and how should you read the news about Beijing's political instability?  

China is clearly ripe for a new wave of long-delayed political and economic reform that would include opening the financial system, greater independence for the legal system, and more experiments in democracy. And it is entirely possible that the upheaval over Bo, who was a hero to China's radical leftists, could help open the way to a new reform push.  

But a backlash from these leftists might already be underway. The dramatic events surrounding the escape of blind activist Chen Guangcheng might have provided one opening. U.S. officials helping Chen get into the embassy in Beijing after he had fled from house arrest could have allowed the security forces to complain about foreign interference in the country. Many of Chen's friends have been caught up in a new crackdown and scores of foreign journalists who went to the hospital where he is convalescing have been threatened with having their visas revoked. In the debates now roiling the Communist Party, we are only getting the views of one of the factions. The Bo scandal has provided a rare peek into the lives of China's leaders, but it has not yet revealed how the Party really views the big political questions that lie ahead of it.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages