Kindly Putin upstages China leader

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Published: Tuesday 11th November 2014 by The News Editor

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It was a warm gesture on a chilly night when Vladimir Putin wrapped a shawl around Xi Jinping’s wife while the Chinese president chatted with Barack Obama.

The only problem was that Mr Putin came off looking gallant, while the Chinese summit host appeared gauche and inattentive.

Worse still were off-colour jokes that began to circulate about the real intentions of the divorced Russian president – a heartthrob among many Chinese women for his macho, man-of-action image.

That was too much for the Chinese authorities.

The incident at a performance linked to this week’s Asia-Pacific summit was broadcast on state TV and spread online as a forwarded video.

But it was soon scrubbed from the Chinese internet, reflecting the intense control authorities exert over any material about top leaders while also pointing to cultural differences over what’s considered acceptable behaviour in public.

Beijing-based historian and independent commentator Zhang Lifan: “China is traditionally conservative on public interaction between unrelated men and women, and the public show of consideration by Putin may provide fodder for jokes, which the big boss probably does not like.”

Mr Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, was once a popular folk singer more famous than her husband and in contrast to her predecessors has taken on a much more public role.

She prominently joins her husband on trips abroad as part of China’s soft power push to seek global status commensurate with its economic might.

Propaganda officials have built the image of Mr Xi and his wife as a loving couple. Photos of him shielding his wife from rain on a state visit, picking flowers for her or simply holding her hand have circulated widely on China’s social media.

But Mr Putin messed up the script last night while Mr Xi chatted with the American president.

In the video, Ms Peng stood up, politely accepted the gray shawl or blanket offered by Mr Putin and thanked him with a slight bow.

But she soon slipped it off and put on a black coat offered by her own attendant.

It spawned a flurry of commentary on China’s social media before censors began removing any mention of the incident.

Li Xin, director of Russian and central Asian studies at Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said Mr Putin was just being a proper Russian and did nothing out-of-line diplomatically.

“It’s a tradition in Russia for a man of dignity to respect ladies on public occasions, and in a cold country like Russia, it is very normal that a gentleman should help ladies take on and off their coats,” Li said. “But the Chinese may not be accustomed to that.”

Published: Tuesday 11th November 2014 by The News Editor

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