BY WANG XIAOZHU
You really need to read carefully between the lines when it comes to remarks made by politicians, especially diplomats, otherwise you will easily get lost in their jargon, and miss crucial information.
That happens to many people when they try to comprehend China’s Foreign Ministry spokespersons, who address Beijing-based reporters on daily basis during weekdays. Most of the time, their remarks show China’s attitude to the world’s hottest current affairs, like the ongoing power struggle in Venezuela for instance.
Other than stating the obvious, few media reports have noticed China’s subtle change of tone on this situation, which began on Jan 23 when Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president.
It happened less than a fortnight after Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a special envoy to attend Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration ceremony in Caracas on Jan 10.
China’s spokespersons voiced clear support to Maduro and his government immediately after the issue broke out and repeated the message almost daily in the week after.
But since Jan 31, they avoided using the terms “President Maduro” and “the Venezuelan government” any more.They reiterated instead Beijing’s readiness to “work with all parties”.
I would argue “all parties” do include the opposition leader.
This change of tone doesn’t mean China’s support for Maduro is waning, but shows Beijing does indeed have a Plan B, if Maduro’s administration fails at the end.
It’s a realistic and pragmatic choice for Beijing. Venezuela is not just a best friend in Latin America, but also a Belt and Road partner where China sees big strategic and economic interests.
Hua Chunying, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, made China’s first comment on Venezuela’s situation on Jan 24, voicing China’s recognition of Maduro and supports for “the efforts made by the Venezuelan government”.
Such attitude lasted for a about a week, during which Hua and spokesman Geng Shuang both repeated almost the same thing, no matter how they were being asked.
Meanwhile, they did call upon “all relevant parties” to stay rational and cool-headed and seek a political solution.
The change came on Jan 31 when Geng said for the first time China “stands ready to work with all parties towards this end (a political solution)”.
He repeated this message on Feb 1 and went a step further to confirm China “has been in close communication with all parties” on the situation.
He answered a total of five Venezuela-related questions on these two days, repeating four times China’s links and readiness to work with “all parties”, without mentioning “President Maduro” or “the Venezuelan government” at all.
We may never know what exactly happened during the week since Jan 24. But posts on the official website of the Chinese embassy in Caracas may give us a hint.
Since Jan 23, the embassy had two related posts:
– On Jan 24: a photo shows Ambassador Li Baorong’s meeting with Venezuela’s Deputy Foreign Minister Felix Plasencia, with a short line above saying they exchanged views on Venezuela’s current situation and bilateral cooperation between the two countries;
– On Jan 26: a story of an embassy-hosted Chinese New Year reception during which Li congratulated Maduro for beginning a new presidential term and said China “oppose any form of hegemonism and interventionism”. The reception was attended by Vice-Venezuelan President Delcy Rodríguez who expressed gratitude to China for its non-interventionist stance.
The embassy posted nothing relevant since then.
My very wild guess is China’s diplomatic mission thought it was no longer appropriate to voice clear support to the Maduro administration only anymore.
They might also have played a key role in Beijing’s communication with “all parties”, including the opposition.
So it’s better to keep quiet for now.
It’s too early and premature to say Beijing’s support for Maduro is waning, given the presidents of the two countries have strong relations.
In Beijing in Sep 2018, Xi gave Maduro a high-profile welcome ceremony, featuring 21-gun salute. In Caracas in 2014, Maduro awarded Xi the Sword of Bolivar, a symbol of freedom, sovereignty and independence.
It won’t be a surprise if Beijing is putting its bets on the opposition too, because international relations, at the end of day, is still a game of realpolitik.
As the whole China enters the holiday season, Foreign Ministry’s spokespersons will stay quiet, if nothing special happened, until Feb 11.
Let’s see how things evolve in Venezuela and what they will speak again then.
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst