Shunning global summits, Xi visits flood-stricken area in northeast China

FILE PHOTO: Xi Jinping attends BRICS Summit in Johannesburg

BEIJING (Reuters) -Eschewing face-time with foreign leaders at global summits this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday visited the homes of villagers in a rural part of northeast China battered by floods.

In the village of Longwangmiao in Heilongjiang province, Xi called on local residents to triumph over their difficulties and work towards returning life to a more normal footing, according to state media reports. He also enquired about their losses and supply of daily necessities.

In late July through early August, record rainfall laid waste to vast swathes of northern China, flooding cities and farmlands unused to powerful storms more common in the south, but Xi did not visit any of the disaster-hit areas until this week.

Inspecting rice crops and damaged homes in Longwangmiao battered by remnants of the super typhoon Doksuri, Xi skipped an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Indonesia this week.

He will also miss the chance on Saturday and Sunday to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden at a G20 conclave in India.

But Xi did attend a meeting in late August with leaders of the BRICS group of major emerging economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - in South Africa.

Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said that Xi's speed in visiting disaster-stricken areas in China has usually been much slower than his immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, a possible consequence of Xi's centralisation of power.

"These delays are common in Xi's regime, it is not a good look for him," Wu said.

"We know that the floods started in July, but he probably got the information late, and then in August he was busy with BRICS, so only now has his agenda cleared."

China has not explained why Xi, who had attended every G20 summit since coming to office over a decade ago, was not leading Beijing's delegation to New Delhi. It has said only that Premier Li Qiang will represent China.

By comparison, Xi left China for five overseas visits in 2022 - when the country's borders were effectively closed due to pandemic controls - and a dozen in pre-COVID 2019.

Reuters, citing foreign diplomats in China, previously reported that Xi's absence at the upcoming G20 could be a sign of Beijing's increasing coolness to the West and its allies.

Instead, some Western leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and senior officials including U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken this year had to come to China to see Xi.

Alfredo Montufar-Helu, head of think tank The Conference Board's China Center, said that from a geopolitical perspective, attending the BRICS summit in South Africa was a higher priority for Xi than the G20.

"There is not only no strategic goal to be achieved at the G20, but there is also a risk that the U.S. and its allies use the meeting to criticize his government," Montufar-Helu said.

"It is more of a priority for him to pay attention to the domestic situation given the impact of the economic slowdown and natural disasters on people's livelihoods."

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Eduardo Baptista; Editing by Sharon Singleton, Alexandra Hudson)