SHANGHAI -- “He’s a really good man. … He has very big muscles. … He’s as handsome as ‘Daddy Xi’.” These tributes to Russian President Vladimir Putin from ordinary Chinese citizens -- seen in a new and apparently government-approved video circulating on China’s Internet -- convey a clear message: The friendship between Moscow and Beijing is growing.
Released ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia on Friday for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the video was made by the same small Beijing production studio that previously made the first officially sanctioned cartoons of a Chinese leader. That video about Xi, called "How Leaders Are Made," and two subsequent works, portrayed him as a jovial but decisive man of action. Referring to Xi by his nickname "Xi Dada," or "Daddy Xi," the videos were apparently designed to help the president win support from China's young and discerning generation of Internet users.
The new film is not animated, but its interviews with ordinary people, on the streets and in the schools, universities and bars of Beijing, also seem squarely aimed at a young Chinese audience. The jump-cut edits feature some moments of humor, including an old man getting his lines wrong -- which would normally be cut from official propaganda films -- and a little girl inviting Putin to her kindergarten “to eat a steamed bun.” A slightly awkward male student says “there are lots of pretty girls in Russia,” while a middle-aged woman is shown explaining that she has always liked Russian culture. And then, as the camera pans out to show a Russian man with his hand on her shoulder, she adds “That's why I married my Russian husband.”
But the underlying messages seem clear: firstly, to show the world that the two countries are now close -- “China is a very reliable strategic partner for Russia,” an earnest academic says -- and secondly, to place Xi firmly alongside Putin, as a tough leader on the world stage. [Xi plans to visit the United States in September.]
“The two leaders are both very strong,” one old man says in the video. “This kind of strength is an internal strength,” another says. “When he needs to take action, he takes action,” a third says of Xi.
Over the past decade, China’s relations with Moscow -- a rival for more than two decades until the late 1980s -- have warmed considerably, with the two nations seeing each other as a useful counterbalance to the global influence of Western nations, with whom both have their disagreements, particularly over issues such as democracy and human rights. It’s all meant plenty of positive coverage of Putin in the Chinese media -- and there’s no doubt that he’s genuinely popular with many in the country.
Asked what she would like to say to Putin, an elderly lady in a Beijing choral ensemble hesitates a moment before proclaiming: “Putin, you’re a big handsome guy!” A young woman says she’d like him to teach her judo, while three young women in a bar clink beer glasses and sing a song in Russian, with lyrics that say: “If you get married, then marry a man like Putin -- a strong, tough guy, who doesn’t get drunk.”
The film’s producers, who say that the comments were spontaneous, told Chinese news website Pengpai that “everyone we talked to thought Putin and Xi were very similar -- both strong leaders -- and equally handsome.”
The video includes a few strategically placed critical comments about the Russian leader -- designed perhaps both to reassure some Chinese citizens that it isn’t pure propaganda, and also to send a low-key message to Moscow.
“You have a really attractive character,” a young woman tells Putin. “If you were a bit nicer to China I’d think you were even more attractive.” An older man suggests Russia could make it easier for Chinese companies to do business there, while a young student asks Russia to cut prices "a little bit" on the natural gas it supplies to China -- a reminder of long, hard negotiations that led to an accord being signed last year, before the steep global fall in oil prices.
But few of the comments are seriously negative. Several young students suggest that Russia should make it easier for Chinese people to travel to the country -- and to buy tickets for the 2018 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, which will be held in Russia. “Let us come to the World Cup without a visa,” two young women say. “We all want to come and visit.” Two young men add: “Let’s build a high-speed rail link between Beijing and Moscow.”
Some commentators have suggested that President Xi has learned a lot from Putin – both in the sense that taking a less conciliatory attitude to the western ‘powers’ can sometimes pay off, at least for a domestic audience, and also in terms of how to project a populist image at home, while at the same time taking a tough approach to domestic dissent.
The film ends with several older people singing “Moscow and Beijing,” a song from the 1950s heyday of Sino-Soviet friendship, before a choir of elderly Beijing ladies launch into another Russian song popular in China during that era: the World War II patriotic song 'Katyusha'.
As the credits roll, with pictures of Putin and Xi together, and the slogan “Come on Beijing, Come on Moscow,” the music continues. It will not be lost on many of the film’s audience in both those cities that ‘Katyusha’ was also the name of the rocket used by the Soviets to defend themselves against their enemies in World War II. With Russia and China about to stage their first joint naval exercise in the Mediterranean later this month, such a reminder of rugged determination to assert one’s position in the face of powerful rivals may not be entirely coincidental.