Xi Pivots to Moscow

What message is China's new leader sending with his first overseas trip?

BEIJING — In January 1979, shortly after he rose to power as paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping visited the United States. While there, he defined the direction he would take the country, donning a cowboy hat and symbolically steering away from the Soviet Union-which he never visited as China's ruler-and toward the markets of the West.

But Xi Jinping, who completed his formal leadership ascension by being crowned president on Thursday (he was appointed chairman of the Communist Party and head of the military in November), is heading first to Moscow.

Will Xi's late March trip to Vladimir Putin's Russia -- a bastion of authoritarian state capitalism -- symbolically define China's path ahead, like Deng's U.S. tour?

It's too early to say, but he's certainly taking care to make it a success.

Xi has been brushing up on his rudimentary Russian, which he learned at Beijing's most exclusive school, No. 101, when it was reserved for the children of high ranking leaders. He has even been rehearsing Russian poetry to impress his hosts, according to one of his close associates.

And he has sought the assistance of his female friend Li Xiaolin, a princeling -- the term used for the children of high-ranking officials -- who heads a ministry-level back-channel diplomatic organization called the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, according to the close associate. Li's father, Li Xiannian, worked closely with Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, when both men were vice premiers in the 1950s. Li's husband Gen. Liu Yazhou is an important confidante of Xi's.

One of Li's aides has been seconded to the economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, from where she had been shuttling between Beijing and Moscow to prepare a huge new oil and gas supply deal to sweeten Xi's arrival.

Whether Russia can open an energy artery to China will depend, essentially, on price. For years, the two countries have been negotiating deals that would double China's imports of Russian oil, making it less dependent on the Persian Gulf and East Africa. The two countries are also planning a huge new joint investment fund, with Li's aide penciled in to be vice chair, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Whether or not the deals come through, Xi's use of Li shows how networks of the red aristocracy enable him to work around the Communist Party's sometimes sclerotic bureaucracy.

There are some close observers who believe, or hope, that Xi's Moscow tour is designed to draw upon symbolism from the revolutionary era when his father was vice premier and China's policy was "to lean to one side" in favor of the Soviet Union.

"Xi will shortly execute China's own pivot," says one well connected observer who has a seat in one of the two legislatures that are meeting in Beijing this week.

The observer says Beijing's move toward Moscow is a response to Washington's "military" pivot, just like when "the Western powers totally ostracized" China in the 1950s.

But the historical parallels are not so clear cut. Unlike the Soviet Union of the 1950s, China runs a successful, market-oriented economy, integrating into the global financial system and heavily dependent on exports to the West.

The economic reforms that Deng is credited with launching in December 1978 propelled China away from Soviet-style autarky into connected capitalism. But Deng was not the architect of reforms as much as an important part of an elite consensus. One of the most important members was Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun.

While Xi Zhongxun and Li Xiannian both served then Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1950s, they left their marks following Mao's death in 1976.

Xi Jinping will remember Li Xiannian from when the revolutionary leader kindly brought him in for a home-cooked meal in the early days of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, when Xi's family was in disgrace. He is also likely grateful for how Li signed off on his father's rehabilitation in August 1977.

And around the time when Deng was photographed waving a 10-gallon hat at a rodeo in Texas, it was Li Xiannian who endorsed Xi Zhongxun's most radical project, according to Warren Sun, a historian of modern Chinese history at Monash University in Australia. Li endorsed Xi's radical idea of a free trade zone and allocated him the piece of land that has now expanded into the bustling export city of Shenzhen.

Since then, the Chinese economy has grown at an average of nearly 10 percent a year, and its GDP has risen from just over $175 billion to $7.3 trillion. But unlike 1979, when China was exuding optimism and the Communist Party was rallying around the promise of reform, there is a pervasive sense of fear and foreboding that the power and corruption of the party-state could derail efforts at reform.

China is once again at a "crossroads," to use a word in vogue among the Beijing intelligentsia. Conservatives hope Xi will move to the conservative left, as symbolized by Putin's Russia. But if Xi Jinping is truly his father's son, he will use the Moscow visit to shore up his left flank while quietly re-starting Deng's journey of opening and reform.

Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages



The propaganda war in Kuwait.

This article was originally published in the New Republic on March 31, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

Last week, I watched nearly a dozen British tanks and armored vehicles storm across the Kuwaiti desert on cue -- literally. The British military had arranged a "press facility," as they call such affairs, and, although the men and women of the media had been delayed for 90 minutes at a police checkpoint on the highway leading to the border with Iraq, there was no danger of missing the maneuvers. Staged with the panache of a Broadway play, the spectacle would commence at whatever hour the audience arrived with its cameras and notepads.

After the press convoy showed up at a British desert base 20 miles south of the Iraqi border, an officer from the 1st Royal Fusiliers of the 7th Armored Brigade gave us a quick security briefing -- so we could "leave with the same number of body parts" with which we arrived -- and instructed us to stand behind a length of white ribbon placed about 20 yards from a serpentine trench. He pointed to the horizon, where the silhouettes of Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles were visible. In one minute, he said, they would arrive at the trench.

Smack on time, the metal monsters ground to a halt in clouds of dust and disgorged a squad of combat soldiers who rushed forward, bayonets drawn, to attack imaginary Iraqis who lacked the wisdom to surrender. One of the Brits lost a boot as he lunged forward. (The humiliation of having it returned to him by a journalist would come later.) After the mock assault, an officer stood in front of us -- there were nearly 100 journalists on the scene -- and said he'd heard that some cameramen wanted to get shots of the now-idling tanks moving directly at them in a "V" formation. The money shot was duly stage-managed. Afterward, we were invited to interview the victorious soldiers and inspect their imposing weaponry.

This is old-fashioned war propaganda. The images of hardworking grunts bravely preparing for battle are intended to bolster support back home and, if the enemy happens to be watching or listening or reading, to convey the message that resistance will be futile and, in all likelihood, fatal. With more than 600 journalists "embedded" with military units in the desert and field trips offered every day for "unilateral" journalists (as we, the un-embedded, are branded on our orange press cards), a lot of canned journalism has been occurring in Kuwait. Until a few days ago, this propaganda war seemed different from previous ones only in its breadth, rather than in its content or effect. But things have taken a startling turn, as I learned from Colonel Chris Vernon, the congenitally blunt and jovially boastful spokesman for the British military. "We're showing what we've got, and we would like the message to get out to the people and to the regime of Iraq," said Vernon, whose broad shoulders and chin-back, chest-forward posture make him a casting director's dream of a British officer. "We would wish to translate success into a message. Therefore, if we were to have success in some part of Iraq, we would like that success to be seen by elements of the leadership and the population."

A few days before the press facility, I had chatted with Vernon at the Hilton Hotel and Resort (where the United States and the United Kingdom have set up their military press center) about Basra, the southern Iraqi city less than 50 miles from Kuwait that is expected to be the first target of the invasion; the Brits are to take Basra while the Americans move north to seize Baghdad. Vernon, who in the 1990s was a spokesman in Bosnia for the U.N. peacekeeping force, went out of his way to say the Brits would likely provide a military escort to carefully selected members of the international media so that news of the liberation of Basra might ignite an uprising in Baghdad and the collapse of the regime. "If I bring Christiane Amanpour into Basra to broadcast from the roof of the Sheraton, it's not because I want her to earn another one hundred thousand pounds in salary," Vernon told me. "It's because I have a military objective that is served by broadcasting the liberation of a city to the rest of Iraq that has not been liberated. We want the regime and the people to know it and feel it." Vernon made the same point during the press facility in the desert and apparently has been making it to my colleagues. A March 13 story by Newsday's Edward Gargan quoted "a senior British officer" -- no prizes for guessing who that might be -- as saying, "I'm not doing this so that the CNN correspondent gets another £100,000 in their salary. I'm doing it because the regime watches CNN. I want them to see what is happening. ... Yes, we are using them. We use everything we have." And, while those few lucky correspondents are being "used" in Basra, the rest of us will presumably have to settle for watching them on television: Word is that the U.S. and British military will try to deny access to Basra to journalists who are traveling on their own.

If his scenario plays out -- and, by the time you read this story, it may already have -- the coup de grâce against Saddam Hussein will be delivered not by Delta Force and the 82nd Airborne in Baghdad but by Christiane Amanpour and CNN in Basra. Regardless of what happens in Iraq in these crucial days, a strategic Rubicon has been crossed by the Pentagon: When the occasion arises, the press will be used, and will likely permit itself to be used, as an offensive military weapon.

The war in Bosnia gave rise to a catchphrase, "the CNN effect." It meant that television in general, and CNN in particular, possessed the power to force governments, and especially the U.S. government, to pay attention to particular issues or crises; priorities and even policy could be set by klieg lights. And, while this was true to an extent, it was nonetheless exaggerated. Tenacious reporting from Bosnia by Amanpour (and many other correspondents who did not work for CNN) certainly kept Bosnia at center stage even though the Clinton administration would have preferred to see it disappear. Yet military intervention occurred only after four long years of warfare, and, when it came, it stopped far short of reversing the ethnic cleansing that journalists had struggled to bring to light and in some cases died for.

Although Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was an avid viewer of CNN and the BBC, he had nothing to fear from them. Thanks to his darkly brilliant manipulation of the domestic media in Serbia, all but a handful of Serbs were so sure they were doing no wrong in Bosnia (and, later, in Kosovo) that they didn't believe a word of what they heard on CNN and the BBC. To them, it was just anti-Serb propaganda.

The situation is far different in Iraq, where -- unlike in Serbia -- the domestic press is widely disbelieved, and CNN and the BBC (especially its short-wave Arabic service) are closely followed. The regime in Baghdad is brittle and weak; Colonel Vernon and his superiors know quite well that the violent house of cards that is the Baath regime could be toppled by irrefutable proof that Basra is free and that Saddam's days are numbered. Hence the prospect of CNN being shuttled to Basra by Blackhawk helicopter. Or, as Vernon explained to me, "War is not just tanks and armor. It's also psychological. Hearts and minds. The other guy's move is affected by what he sees happening or thinks is happening. I think the American defense secretary has a very good understanding of it. He has read the books. He said warfare is psychological. Spot on. Not many politicians get that."

The last decade has not been kind to journalists covering wars; from Bosnia to Rwanda to East Timor, they have been targeted for death. One of the reasons this seemed unfair, and broke a moral code, is that journalists were not supposed to be treated as partisans of one government or another. In Bosnia, we did our jobs with what now seems, nostalgically, minimal cooperation from the military authorities on either side. But today, with American journalists going through widely publicized survival courses run by the U.S. Army, with so many of us embedded with GIs, and -- the coup de grâce to our withering claim of neutrality -- with the prospect of selected outlets being given privileged and controlled access so they can participate in a deadly game of psychological warfare aimed at toppling an enemy regime, the case for journalistic independence is becoming awfully difficult to sustain.

The fall of Basra would be a big story that, it goes without saying, should not be ignored because one side or another might benefit from its coverage. But the only reason CNN or the BBC would need a Blackhawk to Basra is because access may be denied to journalists traveling without a military escort. The roads, we have been told by Vernon and other military spokespeople in Kuwait, will likely be blocked until the situation is "benign" -- a determination that will be made, of course, by the U.S. and British military. Some journalists will doubtless slip through, as a few did during the first Gulf war. But the surest way to the roof of the Basra Sheraton will likely be with a military escort, at a time of the military's choosing, broadcasting a message the military desires, for a duration the military wishes. After all, the generator that powers the transmission gear will probably belong to the military, as will, in all likelihood, the food and water that sustains the journalists.

Their story will be a great scoop. It may also be a great shame.

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