Chinese Premier Li G-20 Debut Eclipsed by Xi in State Media

President Xi Jinping dominated China’s news agenda despite his absence from the Group of 20 summit in India, with Li Qiang’s attendance in his place receiving scant coverage by official media.

(Bloomberg) — President Xi Jinping dominated China’s news agenda despite his absence from the Group of 20 summit in India, with Li Qiang’s attendance in his place receiving scant coverage by official media.

Although Xi didn’t make a public appearance or engage in any official meetings over the weekend, state media gave his earlier trip to northeastern Heilongjiang province wall-to-wall coverage. Reports highlighted the Chinese leader’s inspection of a military facility, while newspapers gave letters Xi sent to world leaders and others prominent play. 

On Sunday, Xi monopolized the first two pages of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece. In contrast, Li, the first Chinese premier to attend a G-20 summit, was relegated to page four for a speech he delivered and meetings on the sidelines with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.

The first 20 minutes of a half-hour evening news program on state TV were devoted to Xi, whereas Li got less than four for his dealings at the leaders’ summit.  

Xi’s decision to skip the G-20 gave Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a chance to boost his nation’s influence. India founded a biofuel alliance with the US and Brazil, while the US signed an agreement with India, Middle Eastern countries and the European Union to link them via a network of railways and sea routes.

Li also held just four bilateral meetings, with Meloni, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, von der Leyen and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, according to statements from China’s Foreign Ministry. US President Joe Biden said during a trip to Vietnam on Sunday that he also met with Li at the G-20.

In contrast, Xi met 11 heads of state at the G-20 summit in Bali last year. Symbolizing the low profile Li kept at the summit, he was left out in a video clip that Modi posted on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter, that showed heads of states arriving for the opening of the event.

The few meetings that Li held didn’t yield any wins for China. Meloni told him that Italy plans to withdraw from Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative while still looking to maintain friendly relations with Beijing, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named. At a press conference, Meloni said she spoke to Li about the BRI but a decision had yet to be made.

Sunak told Li he was concerned about “interference” from Beijing, hours after it emerged that two men had been arrested in the UK for allegedly spying for China. 

Scant coverage

While Li’s arrival in New Delhi was streamed on the official summit feed and reposted by some users on social media platform Weibo, the Chinese embassy in India simply posted a photo of an airplane to announce Li’s landing.

The summit itself didn’t get much play in Chinese official media. State broadcaster CCTV had a one-liner on the summit opening. The addition of the African Union to the bloc was given some airtime, although the joint communique adopted a day earlier was only picked up by state television on Sunday afternoon, after the summit’s close.

Hours before the gathering began, a think tank linked to China’s Ministry of State Security published a strongly worded criticism of India, accusing the G-20 host of pushing its own agenda and causing disagreements.

Xi has also hogged the news limelight with letters and messages. On Saturday, he sent a congratulation letter to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on the 75th anniversary of the country’s founding. He also wrote to some teachers ahead of the annual celebration for the profession on Sunday, as well as to a forum on China-Central Asia cooperation. 

The president extended condolences to the Moroccan king for the deadly earthquake in the North African nation, as well as to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who is at the G-20 summit — for floods that ravaged the country. 

–With assistance from Lucille Liu.

(Updates with more details of Li’s trip to India.)

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