Xi Jinping, Superstar

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the signing ceremony at the Grand Kremlin Palace.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the Grand Kremlin Palace. Photo: Contributor/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
March 21, 2023

When Chinese president Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow, on Monday, for his first overseas trip after securing his third term as leader of the Communist Party and of China, you may have been forgiven for thinking it was Jesus Christ himself who had returned. Traffic in the Russian capital was snarled to a standstill. State television was breathless in its wall-to-wall coverage of the Chinese leader’s three-day visit. The menu for the first night’s dinner, showcasing traditional Russian cuisine, thank you very much, featured venison and blinys with quail, and finished with Russian ice cream, apparently Xi’s favorite. We know this because, as a beaming news anchor explained, on one of his many visits to Moscow, Xi tried Russian ice cream from a humble street vendor and loved it! “Now,” the anchor continued, “Putin sends it to him by the case load.” 

It was a notable departure in sentiment from the usual light xenophobia on Russian airwaves. One Kremlin reporter said on the air that Biden was so eager to talk to Xi, who had, in the minds of official Moscow, arrived in Russia to help end American hegemony, that he would surely call him while the Chinese leader was in Moscow so he could plead his case. The reporter, who hastily mentioned that he had no evidence of any plans for such a call, then asked a very amused Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, if the Kremlin would be against Biden calling Xi while the latter was in Moscow. (Peskov said that Xi, as the leader of a sovereign nation, could do what he pleased.) Another Kremlin reporter stated, totally straight-faced, that, just as there is a boom in demand for Chinese-language instruction in Russia, Chinese citizens are all signing up for Russian lessons, too. 

More importantly, Xi’s long-planned visit was heralded in Moscow as a potential turning point in the war in Ukraine. Shortly before the trip, Beijing put out a twelve-point peace plan, which called for vague, feel-good things like resuming peace talks and protecting civilians and also things that sound good but aren’t, like respecting territorial integrity and ceasing hostilities in Ukraine. The former would imply respecting not just Ukraine’s territorial integrity but China’s vis-à-vis Taiwan. The latter would freeze the conflict and grant Russia the territories it had seized from Kyiv and illegally annexed.