Xi Dominates G20 Talks With Biden in Pages of China's Leading Newspaper

The People's Daily, China's leading newspaper, depicted Joe Biden as an engrossed listener and Xi Jinping as a wise orator after the pair met for the first time as presidents last week.

A front-page report on Xi's appearance at the G20 summit in Bali painted the Chinese leader as a succinct and, at times, commanding figure whose presence had been sorely missed by foreign counterparts during his lengthy self-imposed pandemic isolation.

The prose, long-time China watchers said, was an obligatory rhetorical flourish that accompanied Xi's reelection as leader of the Chinese Communist Party last month, and his subsequent reemergence onto the world stage with his grip on power assured.

Xi's temperament and calm demeanor opposite his American counterpart were particularly central to painting the statesman's portrait in the People's Daily. Biden's own mannerisms, including his typically personable approach to relationships with other leaders, were also placed under the spotlight.

Xi Jinping Meets Joe Biden At G20
Above, U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and President Xi Jinping of China (L) shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali on November 14, 2022. It was the first time the two had met in person since Biden became president. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

At Xi's hotel, where the talks took place on November 14, a smiling Biden entered the conference room and "ran a few steps" to make up the space between himself and the Chinese president, the newspaper said. "All the reporters gasped in surprise."

Biden, who went into the meeting wanting to manage differences between the two countries, was the first to raise the point. He "listened attentively" as Xi spoke, and "regularly looked down to take notes," according to the newspaper.

Xi told Biden that U.S.-China relations should "move forward on the right course without losing direction or speed, still less having a collision." "With a few words, the direction was clear," the People's Daily said, and Biden agreed.

China's president was portrayed as especially firm on Taiwan, the democratically governed island claimed by Beijing and backed by Washington. On the "unavoidable topic," the newspaper said, "President Xi stated his position in a solemn tone."

The report said Biden repeated familiar assurances about the U.S.'s "one China" policy, but Xi left his American interlocutor with a final notice: "The U.S. side should translate its commitments into concrete actions."

By the time the meeting ended some three hours later, an apparently deflated Biden then "walked slowly" out the room, according to the novel-like retelling.

Manoj Kewalramani, a researcher who chairs the Indo-Pacific Studies program at India's Takshashila Institution think tank, said the intended audience of the People's Daily article was "primarily domestic."

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"This is about showcasing that China continues to engage with the U.S. as an equal and is not compromising on core interests," he told Newsweek. "It is useful to show that Xi was in command, given that China was basically walking back its harsh disengagement with the U.S. following Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. It's Beijing that is having to make the readjustment today after its overreaction in August."

"Such talk of Xi's superiority allows for that walking back to be done without seeming like it is conceding something," said Kewalramani, who authors the Tracking People's Daily newsletter on Substack.

Henry Gao, a professor of law at Singapore Management University, also said the state-run newspaper report had been produced for domestic consumption.

"But what is interesting is the timing, considering that this is the first foreign visit of Xi after the 20th party congress," Gao told Newsweek. "By showing how much power Xi has at the international level, it also further cultivates the image of Xi as a great leader not only domestically, but also internationally, further confirming that his elevation to a third term at the party congress was the right decision."

The People's Daily is China's most-read newspaper and the Communist Party's chief propaganda organ. The party's Central Committee, which publishes the paper, regularly takes to its pages under authoritative pen names in tone- and agenda-setting editorials, with talking points that are later mirrored by the Chinese foreign ministry.

When it comes to domestic politics, the People's Daily and other leading party publications help craft the ideological lines that keep Xi in power by building legitimacy around his personalist rule.

Monday's review of Xi's trip to Indonesia said he was the "focal point" of the G20 gathering; world leaders "competed with each other" for a chance to speak to him. They included Xi's "old friend," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who "rushed over" to greet China's president, the report said.

"This is part of the cult of personality that's been built over the years, so a lot of this is about reinforcing Xi's authority back home after the 20th party congress, by demonstrating his standing as an international statesman who is sought after and China as an indispensable shaper of the future of the world order," Kewalramani argued.

"For instance, the paper specifically talked about Chinese ideas and proposals that made it into the G20 declaration and the APEC leaders' statement," he said, while it omitted the words "today's era must not be of war"—a phrase that was actually in the final communiqué and attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.

"I also think that there is an element of pushing back against critics at home who believe that Xi's assertive foreign policy and proximity to Putin has left China more isolated," Kewalramani said.

"The world yearns for China's voice," the People's Daily said. "The world yearns to understand China."