News that President Xi Jinping would not attend the G20 summit in India did not surprise foreign diplomats in China.
Foreign envoys say Beijing has been closing its doors to Western nations and their allies.
More than 10 envoys from such countries stationed in China said they have increasing difficulty getting access to Chinese officials and other sources of information on the world’s second-largest economy.
The envoys, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said this trend had become pronounced in 2023 even as China had dropped rigid pandemic controls that had stymied diplomatic activities for three years.
Officials wary of engaging with foreign powers
Ryan Neelam, a foreign policy analyst who previously served as an Australian diplomat based in Hong Kong, said such a development emphasises that under Xi’s strict regime, officials have become more wary about engaging with foreign powers.
“That has trickle-down effects through the system where lower-level officials, bureaucrats and diplomats are less willing to go off script,” Neelam, director of public opinion and foreign policy at Lowy Institute, said.
“If everything becomes stage-managed and there’s less opportunity to have informal interactions, if you get less access to senior decision-makers across the system, then there’s going to be a narrowing of the opportunity to find points of commonality or areas of compromise.”
China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Relations between China and the West have nose-dived in recent years over issues ranging from Beijing’s reluctance to condemn ally Russia over its Ukraine invasion to tensions over sensitive technologies and Taiwan, the democratic, self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own.
China has not explained why Xi, who has participated in every G20 summit since he came to office more than a decade ago, is not leading Beijing’s delegation to New Delhi for the Sept 9-10 meeting. It has said only that Premier Li Qiang will represent China.
Drop in contact with officials, scholars in China
China has testy relations with host India, which analysts say may be a factor, but more broadly Xi’s international travel has significantly dropped off this year and has been limited to countries Beijing views as friendly.
He has only left China twice – to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and to attend a meeting of major BRICS emerging economies in South Africa last month, where he also missed a keynote address without explanation.
By comparison, Xi managed five overseas visits in 2022 – when the country’s borders were effectively shut due to rigid pandemic controls – and a dozen in 2019 before Covid struck.
But for several Western envoys in Beijing, regular access to Chinese officials or even scholars from state-linked think tanks – which play a key role in explaining China’s policies to the world – has dropped off compared to before the pandemic, they said.
Scheduling visits for travelling dignitaries, as well as establishing protocols and ensuring media access, is also getting harder, several diplomats said.
Heightened scrutiny and interference
When meetings are arranged, Chinese officials stick rigidly to scripted comments, the diplomats said, while some added they experienced hostile behaviour from nationalistic academics. This has curtailed the quality of information envoys can feed back to their capitals, they said.
In July some diplomats said they are also facing heightened scrutiny and interference from Chinese authorities.
However, envoys from two countries which enjoy close relations with China said they had experienced no such problems.
Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington DC-based think tank, said curtailing access or not attending events is increasingly used by China as “leverage” against countries with whom it has disagreements.
“Engagement is seen and used by China as a leverage to shape other countries’ behaviours,” Sun said, adding that she had also heard that the lack of access and security restrictions for Western diplomats in China had “intensified”.
And with China ramping up a sweeping national security drive, aimed in part at rooting out foreign spies, there is little sign of this trend letting up any time soon, analysts say.
“When the anti-West sentiment is on the rise within the Chinese bureaucracy, frequent contact or close working relationships with Western officials may raise questions about one’s political trustworthiness,” Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.
“To Chinese officials, the benefits of such engagements have become less evident, while the political and security risks are growing.”
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard