Relationships between dictators are bound to be a bit strange, but Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s stands out for its theatrical quality. Meetings are carefully choreographed for maximum propaganda effect. Lavish gifts and gilded state rooms are the norm.
Fluent in the language of autocratic flattery, the two always have gushing praise for each other. In 2019, before traveling to Russia, Xi said that Putin was his “best and bosom friend,” while just a year earlier Putin praised Xi as being a “remarkable thinker” and “a good friend I can count on.” Leading up to this week’s visit, Putin referred to Xi as his “good old friend,” and recalling Confucius, wrote, “Isn’t it a joy when a friend comes from afar!” The Russian leader then welcomed Xi to Moscow on March 20 as a “dear friend,” which Xi reciprocated.
Words, however, are meaningless if not followed by action — and for these autocratic buddies, there is no poverty here. In one touching anecdote, Putin claimed that Xi was “the only state leader who has celebrated my birthday with me.” How nice! Maybe the Chinese leader even sang a, er, special rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Not to be outdone, Putin made sure to mark Xi’s sixty-sixth birthday with a special surprise. While meeting the Chinese leader in Tajikistan, Putin gave Xi a veritable chest of Russian ice cream. There was even a cake with the characters 六六大顺, a Chinese idiom indicating “everything goes smoothly” (though it was probably also a play on Xi’s age, as 六 means 6). That was in the summer of 2019, just months before Covid-19 began to spread in Wuhan — which Xi covered up — and the world entered years of death and economic destruction. Everyone knows Putin likes to lie, but who could have guessed that even his birthday cake message would presage catastrophe?
The most comical meet-up of the dictatorial duo, however, was their 2018 cooking class in Vladivostok, Russia. Donning aprons and paired with a professional chef, they each made their own special pancake. Xi clearly has greater culinary skills than Putin — the Chinese leader poured his pancake batter with ease, while the Russian left a gaping hole in his. They finished by spooning caviar onto their creations and downing glasses of vodka.
The relationship between the authoritarian bros is not all parties and cuisine — the leaders spare no effort in the awards category either. In 2017, Putin bestowed Xi with the Order of Saint Andrew, saying, “This medal serves as a recognition from Russia to your special merits in developing all encompassing partnership and strategic cooperation between our governments.” Xi followed up a year later by giving Putin the Friendship Medal of the People’s Republic of China, the first individual ever to receive it.
During Xi’s 2019 visit, Putin took his counterpart on a boat ride in Saint Petersburg. Sitting in a luxurious craft with the Russian flag fluttering behind them, the two leaders chatted as the sun hovered just above the horizon. Xi, however, seemed slightly seasick.
As Putin faces the challenges unleashed by his ruthless invasion of Ukraine, the world can expect more shows of warmth and friendship during Xi’s current visit, specially staged for the Global Times and RT. Russia needs China — and with Moscow functioning more like a gas pump than a strategic equal to Beijing, glitzy gatherings are about all that Putin can offer Xi.