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As China Tries to Present a Friendlier Image, a New Face Emerges

  • February 15, 2024

Faced with declining foreign investment at home, China has sought to soften its image in the United States and Europe and make nice with some of its neighbors. One Communist Party official has played an unusually prominent role in the shift in tone.

In New York, he told an audience of scholars and businesspeople that China did not seek to rewrite the United States-led global order. In Paris, he said that China’s modernization would benefit Europe and the world. In Beijing, he told the ambassador of India, a regional rival, that China hoped relations would “return to a healthy and stable” track.

The official, Liu Jianchao, heads the Communist Party’s diplomatic arm, a body that promotes the party’s ideology and influence abroad. His recent engagements suggest to analysts, however, that he has been auditioning for the role of China’s next foreign minister.

For Beijing, appointing a new foreign minister, potentially as soon as in March during a legislative meeting, would help steady the country’s diplomatic apparatus after a dramatic shake-up last year.

In July, the party abruptly ousted Qin Gang, then the foreign minister, amid speculation that he had been in a romantic relationship that potentially compromised national security. Mr. Qin’s predecessor, Wang Yi, was reappointed to the post; Mr. Wang is also the director of the party’s commission on foreign affairs, a position usually held by a different person than the foreign minister.

Mr. Liu’s appointment would signal a departure from the abrasive “wolf warrior” diplomacy that has come to symbolize China’s assertive posture under China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, at least in tone, if not in substance.

A fluent speaker of English who studied briefly at Oxford University, Mr. Liu has a knack for defending Beijing’s most ardent positions, like its claims to the self-governing island of Taiwan, without being acerbic. Mr. Liu is considered a trusted party loyalist, having burnished his reputation by helping lead a controversial campaign called Operation Fox Hunt to bring back corrupt businesspeople and officials from abroad.

Many who have met with Mr. Liu say he is more informal and engaging than other Chinese officials, seemingly comfortable going off script.

“Liu is an experienced diplomat who brings the relaxed confidence of a senior party cadre to his dialogues, something that is missing from most Chinese foreign ministry officials who cautiously recite the party line,” said Danny Russel, a vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state who spoke with Mr. Liu at a meeting organized by the Asia Society, a research group, in New York.

At another event in New York, Mr. Liu downplayed the severity of China’s economic slowdown, defended Beijing’s ties to Moscow and cast his country as a peaceful nation that had no interest in changing the current international order, nor in creating a new one.

“We are one of the builders of the current world order and have benefited from it,” he said at the talk, hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The remark understates China’s position, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. China supports only some aspects of the global order, such as its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, but it opposes other aspects it views as a challenge, such as the U.S.-led NATO.

Still, Ms. Sun said, it was important that a senior Chinese official chose to highlight Beijing’s intentions about the global order because it “aims to bring down the tempo and the temperature” of its relationship with Washington.

Mr. Liu rose through the ranks of the foreign ministry, first as a translator and then a spokesman, gaining prominence by working with the foreign media during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After that, he served as ambassador to the Philippines and to Indonesia.

In 2015, Mr. Liu took on the job of hunting fugitives abroad as a vice minister for the feared Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s secretive and powerful internal anti-corruption agency.

In that role, Mr. Liu showed off his negotiation skills, recovering large sums of absconded money and netting high-profile fugitives such as Lai Changxing, a Chinese businessman and billionaire who fled to Canada to avoid charges that he ran a smuggling ring. Mr. Lai was convicted and now is serving a sentence of life imprisonment. Human rights groups have described the Fox Hunt campaign as a form of transnational repression.

Mr. Liu bolstered his party credentials again in 2017 when he was named the top anti-corruption official in the coastal province of Zhejiang, where Mr. Xi once served as party leader. He was appointed deputy director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, a high-level party office that was formed in 2018 as Mr. Xi has sought to give the party even more control over China’s international relations strategy.

In Mr. Xi’s decade in power, he has pushed to expand the party’s grip over the country’s vast government bureaucracy and Chinese society. “East, west, south, north, and center, the party leads everything,” Mr. Xi said at a party conclave in 2017.

That shift was underscored again when Mr. Liu was named to his current position in 2022 as head of the International Liaison Department. Traditionally, the department was charged with maintaining close ties with Communist parties in other countries like North Korea and Vietnam. It left regular state-to-state diplomacy to the foreign ministry.

Mr. Liu has broken those norms by meeting with foreign ministers across the world — giving the party access to diplomatic back channels that are rarely publicized. While in the United States in January, Mr. Liu met with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in a rare meeting between the serving head of the International Liaison Department and a secretary of state.

China and the United States stabilized relations in November following a summit between Mr. Xi and President Biden outside San Francisco. But tensions could reignite over a number of disputes that remain unresolved — including the status of Taiwan and restrictions on technology exports to China.

In Britain, Mr. Liu signaled China’s resolve to protect its interests firmly. At a panel in Britain last summer, Mr. Liu was asked about “wolf warrior” diplomacy. He responded in his typically amiable way, explaining that China wanted to make friends all over the world. But he cautioned, “When China is under pressure and China’s policies are under pressure, we do demonstrate a fighting spirit.”

Olivia Wang contributed reporting.

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