The president of Russia, seated next to the first lady of China Peng Liyuan, suddenly stood up with a shawl in his hands and put it on her shoulders. Several moments later she stood up with a smile of politeness and let the shawl slip off her shoulders. An aid immediately helped her with a leather jacket.
What happened here? In the Chinese viewpoint, the president of China was insulted in public by suggesting he was husband incapable of taking care of his wife. Peng Liyan was sitting between Putin and her husband who was talking at the moment a person on his right, Barack Obama.
In China, a guest is not expected to show any activity, and in this particular case a divorced man with a documented penchant for half-naked photo-ops, shows attention to the first lady as if she were abandoned, and even touches her. The Chinese do not like physical contact. They do shake hands nowadays, but they don’t give hugs. Married women should not be touched at all. Putin did all this in the eyes of the Chinese public. A tide of discussions that ensued and a video of the episode were erased from the Chinese internet by censors within hours.
This is not a trifle matter but rather a symbolic challenge to order. Embarrassment is hidden behind smiles, and the Chinese do not hurry with a reply.
Angela Merkel, a dog and the map
In European standards, Putin acted as a gentleman. In the Soviet movies of his youth, a cliché romantic scene would show a couple strolling in the evening and the hero necessarily offering his jacket to the girl. Putin once did that during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The chancellor must have been more impressed by another meeting when Putin came with his dog. He definitely knew that Merkel was afraid of dogs. But he thus suggested to the German leader that he was the one with the upper hand in their couple. She must not have been pleased.
Merkel understands the importance of symbolic gestures in the East. When Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Berlin soon after the annexation of the Crimea, she presented him with an 18-century French map printed in Germany. It showed China but without Tibet.
During a vote in the UN Security Council on the resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea, China abstained but did not vote against the document. Several times the Foreign Ministry of China declared the support for territorial integrity of Ukraine. China understood the hint and certainly appreciated the fact that it was delivered without an insult.
The swimming pool revenge
In 1949, Chinese communist leader Mao Dzedong arrived in Moscow to congratulate Stalin with his 70th anniversary – and was treated as jus an ordinary guest. The Russians accommodated him in a dacha outside Moscow, entertained him with a cultural program. Only before the departure was Mao received by Stalin.
In 1954, during his first visit to China, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev was treated so exquisitely that, on his return to Moscow, he shared the feeling with his colleagues that a conflict with China was inevitable.
In July 1958, Khrushchev paid a visit to China again. The order of Mao was to accommodate the Russian delegation, including Khrushchev, in a hotel without air conditioning amidst unbearable summer heat. The following day, Mao invited the Russian guest to his luxurious residence in Beijing.
To Khrushchev’s great surprise, Mao received him in a bathrobe and invited him for a swim. A pair of green trunks was ready for the guest. Contrary to Mao, who was a good swimmer, Khrushchev couldn’t swim at all. He was standing in the shallow end of the pool while Mao was swimming loops and delivering a lecture on his political vision. Interpreters were running back and forth to keep up.
Then came the worst: Khrushchev, a man of chubby stature, was squeezed into a life vest and ordered to swim. He was made to clumsily paddle along while listening and giving short answers to Mao who was showing off his superiority in water. As a doctor commented later, Mao looked like an emperor receiving a barbarian who brought his tributes. Khrushchev left for Moscow furious and immediately called back all the Soviet advisors from China.
Western influences have touched only the surface of the Chinese manners. It will be Putin personally or Russia who shall pay for his faux pas. There are many examples from the history of China, showing that insulting the ruler always kicks back, sooner or later.
Two Russian birds in the bush vs four American agreements
During the APEC summit, Xi Jinping treaded Putin with much hospitality, but he usually had American President Obama on his right. He signed an agreement with Putin for 325-billion-dollar supply of Siberian gas to China after 2020. It is the second such agreement this year.
When Putin visited Beijing soon after aggression in Ukraine, when he had already fallen out with the West, it was announced about the 400-billion-dollar gas agreement regarding the yet-to-be-built pipeline “Power of Siberia”. However, on 10 October, Gazprom issued a press-release saying that the company’s boss Aleksey Miller held talks in China on preparations to sign agreement on gas supply. This could mean that Putin didn’t sign the real contract in spring, and only put up a show for Europe in order to push the message that Russia had gas exporting options that did not include the EU.
On the other hand, Xi Jinping signed four important agreements with Barack Obama: on climate change, one with massive implications for the restructuring of the Chinese energy sector; on free trade for IT products; on visa waiving programme which intensifies relations between the two countries; and a military agreement on location of bases, which indicates that US-Chinese confrontation shall be avoided.