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Xi Jinping still refuses to leave China, even for COP26

Chinese President Xi Jinping stands and applauds, and partially smiles, at a government meeting in Beijing
Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

Published Last updated on

The will-he-or-won’t-he guessing game around Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s attendance at a major climate summit in Scotland continues.

In the latest development, it appears he won’t.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson was advised that Xi likely will not be showing up at COP26 in Glasgow, the BBC reports. Rumors to that effect have been circulating for weeks.

World leaders will be gathering at the conference from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 to discuss ways to minimize global warming and the effects of climate change.

China has been the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (which are responsible for rising temperatures) for a decade, largely because of its dependence on coal. It currently represents 30% of global carbon emissions, making Xi’s cooperation critical for the summit’s success.

Why might Xi Jinping stay in China during COP26?

Xi’s decision whether to appear on the world stage in Scotland may hinge on whether China believes the leader would be protected from Covid-19 infection while abroad. It’s believed he has not traveled outside of China at all for nearly two years, or more than 600 days. He has instead been virtually attending talks and holding video calls with other heads of state.

Xi may believe that he must abide by China’s strict restrictions, experts say, and not fly around the world while ordinary Chinese people face reduced freedoms as the country attempts to eliminate Covid-19. In September, he declined an invitation to attend the G20 meeting in Rome on Oct. 30, one day before COP26 begins, citing Covid concerns.

However, Xi is also dealing with an energy and climate-related crisis at home that could also make travel abroad a bad idea, optics-wise.

In China, a rise in post-pandemic demand for manufactured products is putting pressure on factories and electricity utilities at the same time that the government is attempting to drastically cut carbon emissions. (Last year, Xi announced a still-vague, extremely ambitious plan to reach peak emissions by 2030 and reduce its carbon output to net-zero by 2060.) In recent years, China has pushed for electric cars, while ramping up its use of natural gas, and solar, wind, and other renewable sources of power. But the pivot hasn’t been frictionless.

Following sudden widespread blackouts in the country last month, Beijing last week abruptly reopened coal plants, concerned about the economic consequences of hobbling productivity at a time when supply chain issues have already led to unprecedented shortages.

China’s greening of its economy could lead to a total transformation, the New York Times suggests, but it may also be a long, painful process.

Why Xi may still attend COP26 climate

Diplomatic relations between the US and China are also suffering. The relationship is “strained on climate, human rights and labor issues, trade, and China’s spate of military flyovers of Taiwan,” Quartz reporter Tim McDonnell recently noted.

Then again, Xi may be motivated to join the summit precisely because US president Joe Biden (plus 13 high-level officials, not to mention former president Barack Obama) and other leaders will be there promoting their own climate plans. This could be Xi’s opportunity to sell the idea of cutting emissions to China’s population, to show that China is a climate leader and not merely expected to bow to Western demands. “China does care about how it looks to the world,” Alex Wang, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, told McDonnell. “As long as they can seem better than the US, that’s better for them.”

“The old message was, ‘resist action and blame the US.’ The new message is, ‘We’re the active and responsible ones’,” he added.

Diplomats who spoke to the BBC remain hopeful that Xi will appear in Glasgow, explaining that his travel plans are often announced at the last minute. “We never give up hope,” one diplomat told the news outlet. “And we are continuing to make the case for his personal attendance.”

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