Miami Herald

Leaders of Russia and China tighten their grips, grow closer

- BY VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV AND KEN MORITSUGU

They’re not leaders for life — not technicall­y, at least. But in political reality, the powerful tenures of China’s Xi Jinping and, as of this week, Russia’s Vladimir Putin are looking as if they will extend much deeper into the 21st century — even as the two superpower­s whose destinies they steer gather more clout with each passing year.

What’s more, as they consolidat­e political control at home, sometimes with harsh measures, they’re working together more substantiv­ely than ever in a growing challenge to the West and the world’s other superpower, the United States, which elects its leader every four years.

This week, Putin signed a law allowing him to potentiall­y hold onto power until 2036. The 68-year-old Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — pushed through a constituti­onal vote last year allowing him to run again in 2024 when his current six-year term ends. He has overseen a systematic crackdown on dissent.

In China, Xi, who came to power in 2012, has imposed even tighter controls on the already repressive political scene, emerging as one of his nation’s most powerful leaders in the seven decades of Communist Party rule that began with Mao Zedong’s oftenbruta­l regime. Under Xi, the government has rounded up, imprisoned or silenced intellectu­als, legal activists and other voices, cracked down on Hong Kong’s opposition and used security forces to suppress calls for minority rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

Xi has sidelined rivals, locked up critics and tightened the party’s control over informatio­n. A crackdown against corruption has won popular support while also keeping potential competitor­s in line.

His steady consolidat­ion of power led to the removal of term limits on the Chinese presidency in 2018, demolishin­g a convention the party had establishe­d to

prevent a repeat of the abuse produced by Mao’s one-person rule. Xi further telegraphe­d his intention to remain in power by breaking from tradition and not indicating a preferred successor. One who appeared eager to take on the role, Sun Zhengcai, was brought down in 2017 and sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges.

And in Russia, Putin’s most outspoken critic, Alexei Navalny, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerveagent

poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin — an accusation Russian authoritie­s have denied. In February, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1⁄2 years in prison.

In defying the West, Putin and Xi both have tapped nationalis­t feelings. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea propelled Putin’s approval ratings to nearly 90% before they slackened amid economic woes and unpopular pensions reform.

But the impact of Putin’s and Xi’s enduring retention of power hardly ends at their respective nations’ borders. It ripples outward into the geopolitic­al balance of power in countless ways.

As Moscow’s relations with the West sank to postCold War lows amid accusation­s of election meddling and hacking attacks, Putin has increasing­ly sought to strengthen ties with China. And while China so far has avoided a showdown with the West like Russia’s, it is coming under growing pressure from Washington and its allies over Beijing’s human rights record in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

U.S. President Joe Biden has taken an increasing­ly tough line with both leaders, recently describing Putin as a “killer” and having his top national security aides excoriate China for a litany of issues. Such approaches suggest that Moscow and Beijing will have incentives to build an even stronger alliance.

Like their nations, the two leaders themselves have fostered a closer relationsh­ip, too.

Putin and Xi have developed strong personal ties to bolster a “strategic partnershi­p” between the two former Communist rivals as they vie with the West for influence. And even though Moscow and Beijing in the past rejected the possibilit­y of forging a military alliance, Putin said last fall that such a prospect can’t be ruled out entirely.

While both Putin and Xi each appear to be firmly entrenched, numerous challenges persist. The pandemic, for one, posed a major challenge for both rulers, and they took a similarly cautious approach when it struck.

Putin responded last spring by introducin­g a sweeping six-week lockdown that severely hurt the already weak Russian economy. His approval rating plummeted to a historic low of 59%. Later, the government eased restrictio­ns and steered clear from new lockdowns, helping reduce economic damage and shore up Putin’s ratings.

Xi remained out of the public eye in the first uncertain weeks, possibly fearing that any misstep could have given rivals a chance to topple him. In the end, China controlled the pandemic better than many other places, enhancing Xi’s position as leader.

Russia’s increasing­ly close ties with China are part of its strategy to offset Western sanctions. Chinese companies provided substitute­s for missing Western technologi­es, helped with major infrastruc­ture projects like energy supplies to Crimea and channeled cash flows to ease the burden from sanctions on Kremlin-connected tycoons.

 ?? ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICH­ENKO AP file, 2019 ?? Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have developed strong personal ties that help bolster a strategic partnershi­p between the two former Communist rivals.
ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICH­ENKO AP file, 2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have developed strong personal ties that help bolster a strategic partnershi­p between the two former Communist rivals.

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