Beijing Suddenly Has Clear, Blue Skies as Xi Hosts Summit
(Bloomberg) -- From the People’s Armed Police to factory managers and granny volunteers with red arm bands, the Chinese state snapped into action to make President Xi Jinping and the country look good as he showcases his cornerstone diplomatic initiative for the world.
Xi hosts almost 30 world leaders and hundreds of other dignitaries in Beijing through Monday for the first Belt and Road Forum dedicated to his signature push for infrastructure and investment connecting Asia, Europe and Africa. China is backing the effort to build a new Silk Road trade route with hundreds of billions of dollars of investment for railroads and ports from London to Colombo to Jakarta.
Visiting officials were greeted in Beijing over the weekend by blue skies, which are unusual most of the year but common at major events like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, national legislative meetings and any time large contingents of visiting dignitaries are in town.
On Monday morning, the city’s air monitoring system classified air quality as "fresh". During much of the weekend, concentrations of PM2.5 -- the small particles that pose the greatest health risk -- were near zero, according to a U.S. Embassy pollution monitor. Beijing typically averages a level about three times the World Health Organization’s recommendation of no more than 25 for any 24-hour period, and regularly spikes into the hundreds.
As with past extravaganzas like the 2008 Olympics and 2015 China Victory Day Parade, China leaves nothing to chance and every detail is crucial in the drive to advertise Beijing’s largesse. Such events are endowed with a near-holy significance in China, which is embracing global leadership as the U.S. turns inward under Donald Trump.
The Belt and Road Forum is the first dedicated to a home-grown initiative created by Xi -- China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping died in 1997. He is looking to project strength at home ahead of a twice-a-decade reshuffle of the Communist Party’s top leaders, an image unlikely to be marred by the fact that all Group of Seven heads of state and government were absent except Italy.
"The main significance of the forum is optics: Making Xi Jinping look presidential and effective at home and making China look rich and powerful on the world stage," said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser, North East Asia for the International Crisis Group. "Western countries are skeptical that they will really benefit economically, and worry that the initiative will increase Chinese influence, both economic and geopolitical, across Eurasia and beyond."
Tourist sites, major intersections and subway stations across the sprawling capital region of some 21 million are being monitored by an array of security services. The People’s Armed Police, equipped with riot gear and fire extinguishers, patrol alongside the Beijing city police and small teams of volunteers, many of whom are retired Beijingers sporting red arm bands.
To keep unseemly activity at bay, city police have targeted local bars and clubs. Establishments in the popular Sanlitun bar area were ordered to halt musical shows until May 17. Several nightclubs were told to close for the duration of the meeting.
Residents also had to endure long disruptions to their normal commutes as authorities blocked off central traffic arteries in the city to enable the unhindered flow for entourages of government officials and visiting dignitaries.
The initiative, as state media have explained with frenzied coverage, is the centerpiece of Xi’s foreign policy. One video produced by the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily explained that "Xi Jinping is taking China to the center of the world stage."
Another, produced by the China Daily, features a father explaining the international reach of the initiative to his daughter in the form of a bedtime story. "Lots of countries’ leaders will be there, they’ll talk, and we’ll learn more about its future," the father explains.
Adding to the supporting cast of global leaders were United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who said in a speech just after addresses by Putin and Erdogan that China has become a pillar of multilateralism, plus International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.
On Sunday morning, reporters arriving for Xi’s keynote speech were turned away if they weren’t dressed formally enough. Men were required to wear ties, and government media organizers repeatedly warned journalists that shorts were not acceptable.
To celebrate the event, bridges, bus shelters and street lamps have been draped in dry celebratory slogans such as: "Extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits." State media also produced slide shows of the banners.
The city has illuminated several of its best-known landmarks such as the Bird’s Nest National Stadium and China Central Television Tower. The egg-shaped National Center for the Performing Arts on Chang’an Avenue, Beijing’s main thoroughfare, glowed with the light of 10,860 lamps, according to China Daily, the official English-language newspaper.
On Sunday night, Xi gathered guests for a banquet at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. State television carried a live broadcast of guests from Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo arriving in gleaming black China-made Hongqi sedans and walking up red-carpeted stairs past soldiers standing at attention with bayonets.
Inside, Xi greeted each arriving guest with his wife, famed singer Peng Liyuan. Guests at dinner sat at one long table with flower arrangements and plastic doves, and menus showed choices including scallop soup, pigeon eggs, lobster, prawns, beef and codfish.
Xi sat next to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, closing a circle that began in 2013 when he first proposed a “New Silk Road Economic Belt” in a speech in the Kazakh capital Astana.