China's Silk Road forum latest effort to boost Xi Jinping's stature

China will seek to burnish President Xi Jinping's stature as a world-class statesman at an international gathering centered on his signature foreign policy effort envisioning a future world order in which all roads lead to Beijing.

The "Belt and Road Forum" opening on Sunday is the latest in a series of high-profile appearances aimed at projecting Xi's influence on the global stage ahead of a key congress of the ruling Communist Party later this year. All feed a fundamental yearning among ordinary Chinese: to see their country's prestige and status rise.

"Xi is now seen as a world leader with a lot of influence and respect internationally and that will definitely boost his domestic appeal," said Joseph Cheng, a long-time observer of Chinese politics now retired from the City University of Hong Kong.

Leaders from 28 countries are set to attend, including Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. The most prominent attendee from the West will be Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy.

Other Western nations, including the United States, will be represented by officials of significantly lower standing. Washington is sending a delegation led by Eric Branstad, senior White House adviser in the Department of Commerce. Britain, Germany and France are to be represented by finance officials.

That's partly because of developments at home, but also is a reflection of concerns that China may be exporting its standards on human rights, the environment and government transparency, while leaving poor countries with unsustainable levels of debt.

Yet the forum is as much about promoting Xi's image at home as it is about pushing his vision abroad.
Chinese state media outlets have linked Xi inextricably to the two-day gathering in Beijing, which will be centered around their president's plan for a vast network of ports, railways and roads expanding China's trade with Asia, Africa and Europe. Xi has even popped up in a series of English-language promotional videos produced by the official China Daily called "Belt and Road Bedtime Stories."

"He's showing vision. Leaders have to be visionary. He's showing hope in their economic future by proposing a very significant economic plan," former U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus told The Associated Press. "I think it's going to help him very much ahead of the next party congress."

The party will hold its twice-a-decade congress this fall at which Xi will oversee an infusion of fresh blood in leading bodies, most importantly the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Xi rose to the top of an intensely competitive system riven by factions and rivalries to take the reins of the party in 2012, and has steadily accrued powers well beyond those of his predecessors in areas such as defense, internal security and the economy.

He's also fallen back on the hallowed tradition of political campaigns and sloganeering, preaching the "Chinese Dream" of prosperity and national rejuvenation, pushing a sweeping anti-corruption campaign and cracking down on the infiltration of "Western" democratic values that could threaten party control.

In the international sphere, he's presided over both the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the G-20 meeting of industrialized states, both of which were attended by former President Barack Obama. In January, Xi sought to portray himself as a champion of globalization and free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in contrast to President Donald Trump's protectionist rhetoric.

On an entirely different level though is his signature initiative formally known as "One Belt, One Road."
It aims to reassert China's past prominence as the dominant power in Asia whose culture and economy deeply influenced its neighbors as far as Africa and Europe. It speaks deeply to Chinese pride in their country's explosive economic growth and political clout after a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers that formally ended with Mao Zedong's communist revolution in 1949.

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