A more 'loveable' China? Xi hints at a charm offensive to 'expand' Beijing's 'circle of friends'

China watchers are intrigued by a speech delivered this week by China's supreme leader Xi Jinping — one that appeared to extend a large and unexpected olive branch to the world. But there's little consensus on how much observers should read into Xi's words and what they might mean for Canada.

But what does the new approach mean for relations with Canada — and for the Canadians imprisoned in China?

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a big screen during a live broadcast of the closing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on Thursday, March 11, 2021. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

China watchers are intrigued by a speech delivered this week by China's supreme leader Xi Jinping — one that appeared to extend a large and unexpected olive branch to the world.

But there's little consensus on how much observers should read into Xi's words and what they might mean for Canada.

Some say the speech appears to signal a real change of approach from the leader most strongly associated with China's highly aggressive approach to international relations — often referred to as "wolf warrior diplomacy" after a series of uber-nationalistic Chinese action movies.

"It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority, and constantly expand the circle of friends as regards international public opinion," Xi told Communist Party officials in remarks reported by China's Xinhua News Agency and other Chinese media.

And in what appeared to be a rare acknowledgement of China's current international isolation, Xi said the country's diplomats should present the world with "a credible, loveable and respectable China."

The man who since 2012 has rewarded and promoted those diplomats and spokespeople who were most aggressive in their remarks and social media postings now says he wants them to address the world in a tone that is "open and confident, but also modest and humble."

Canada has been on the receiving end of some of that undiplomatic behaviour by Chinese diplomats.

'This is a recalibration'

The full text of Xi's speech doesn't appear to have been widely shared, said Gordon Houlden, who heads the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

"But I've seen some pretty fulsome readings of it, which I think is about the best we'll get," he said.

"It's worked its way up through the party structure. The words come out of [Xi's] mouth in a study session. It obviously has his imprimatur and that of the standing committee of the Politburo.

"This is a recalibration. The Party, whether we accept it or not, is a thinking machine capable of recalibration."

China may have escaped the worst of the pandemic in terms of sickness and death. But the country's public image around the world — already deteriorating before COVID-19 hit — has taken an absolute pummeling.

A protester from the Uyghur community living in Turkey holds an anti-China placard during a protest in Istanbul Thursday, March 25, 2021. Hundreds of Uyghurs staged protests in Istanbul and the capital Ankara demanding that the Turkish government take a stronger stance against human rights abuses in China's far-western Xinjiang region. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

From North America to Europe, from India to East Asia and Australasia, anger and suspicion about the origins of the pandemic have combined with outrage over actions and statements by the Chinese government to cause historic drops in public approval of the regime.

China's image has taken a beating in Canada as well. A poll released back in March reported most Canadians — and 49 per cent of Liberal voters — want Canada to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

Opening up?

There are signs that suggest a real and deliberate shift in Beijing's approach to diplomacy might be underway.

Yesterday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Weibin said that Xi's comments are "in line with what we need for China's peaceful development as well as reform and opening up." 

While Xi has led reform campaigns to battle corruption, there has been little sign of willingness on his part to "open up" his government.

"According to reports, he received a briefing from a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai" — Zhang Weiwei — "suggesting that the propaganda work was not being done effectively, that this very aggressive wolf warrior approach was not fulfilling China's goals," said former Canadian diplomat Charles Burton (himself a graduate of Fudan). 

Zhang Weiwei is a figure closely associated with former leader Deng Xiaoping, who really did open the country up and smoothed out some of the harsher aspects of Maoist China.

'Heads will be rolling'

"I think it probably indicates that there will be some changes made in the public face of China's propaganda, but ultimately, the government is not going to change its policies," Burton said.

"I don't see this having any impact, for example, on Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. I think that the Chinese are still going to pressure Australia to withdraw its demand that China should make a closer examination of the origins of COVID-19. But I think we may see a more conciliatory language in the public statements directed abroad."

Canadian Embassy Charge d'Affaires Jim Nickel (right) and United States Embassy Acting Deputy Chief of Mission William Klein (second right) speak to media and supporting diplomats after they were denied entry to the closed trial for Canadian Michael Kovrig on March 22, 2021 in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Burton said the new tone may have more immediate consequences for the young, nationalistic officials who have been favoured by the Xi regime.

"They just don't seem to know how to communicate with us in a way that will make us feel better disposed towards that regime," he said. "So, you know, it's indicative that probably heads will be rolling inside certain elements of the Chinese Communist Party responsible for external propaganda."

Party factions manoeuvre

China, which used to be ruled by committee, has become more of a one-man show since Xi took power in 2012. He's laboured to create a Mao-style personality cult around himself and is not given to acknowledging his mistakes — which is another reason this speech stands out.

"When you have a one-party state, it's tempting to assume that Xi calls all the shots all the time," said Houlden.

Rather, he said, "the factions within the party become the parties and act as parties. There are other voices. They tend to be muffled by Xi's control of the party structure and of the broadcast infrastructure and media."

Xi's role in the party is "dominant, but not all-powerful," said Houlden, adding Xi knows he can't afford to ignore other views all the time.

But if Xi has been persuaded to soften the tone, does that mean he'll also change the substance?

Kovrig and Spavor

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to questions about what the speech might mean for relations with Canada, or for the two Canadians still imprisoned in China.

Burton said he doesn't believe that China will consider letting Michael Kovrig or Michael Spavor go free as long as Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou remains in Canadian custody awaiting possible extradition to the United States.

"The fact is that Canada has not undertaken any form of retaliatory measure against China with regard to the hostage diplomacy of Kovrig and Spavor, or with regard to China's earlier imposition of non-tariff barriers on our agricultural commodity exports to China," he said.

"So I think from their perspective, holding Kovrig and Spavor has been effective."

Houlden sees a similar deadlock.

"I've met with the foreign policy establishment within the Communist Party international department. I would agree with them on this — there's no substantive improvement possible in Canada-China relations until the twin issues of Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels have been dealt with," he said.

"China has locked itself into a view that Meng Wanzhou is the prerequisite for an improvement, and I'd argue the Canadian side has similarly done so vis-a-vis the two Michaels."

When surveyed by Angus Reid last October, 77 per cent of Canadians agreed that "unless Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are released from detention in China, the two countries cannot have a good relationship." Only one in ten disagreed with that statement.

Speak softly, but keep the big stick

One indication that the change may be mainly cosmetic came this week when 16 Chinese military aircraft invaded Malaysian airspace over the island of Sarawak on the same day Xi gave his "loveable" speech.

Malaysian jets were scrambled in response. 

"China and Malaysia are friendly neighbours," the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur stated in response to criticism. Clearly, the Chinese government's definition of friendship didn't sit well with the Malaysians, who summoned China's ambassador to protest yet another attempt to assert Chinese control over the South China Sea.

Canadian ships have carried out several freedom-of-navigation patrols in the area to push back on China's encroachment. HMCS Calgary was recently shadowed by Chinese warships as it passed near the sensitive Spratly Islands.

China's growing assertiveness is sure to be a major topic of discussion at this month's G7 summit in the U.K. Three non-members who have had disputes with China — India, Australia and South Korea — have been invited to attend the summit. The Biden administration in the U.S. has been open about trying to assemble a coalition of nations willing to push back against China.

All of which may help to explain the sudden loveable talk emanating from Beijing.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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