They greet outside a heavily guarded country home in an undisclosed location, each man flanked by his trusted interpreter.
The two men shake hands amicably. Clearly, they have been at the same site before.
Xi – Good to see you.
Putin – Have been looking forward to this, as always.
They turn and step into a short hallway at which end a large double door opens to reveal an ample room with padded chairs facing each other and smaller seats adjacent for the interpreters.
The men stride in and take their seats.
Two attendants are standing by an elegantly draped table covered with delicacies and an assortment of drinks.
Xi and Putin nod at the table attendants and that is their cue to exit the room, so no one else except the interpreters remains with them.
Putin – How is the family?
Xi – Very well, and yours?
Putin – Very well also. Thank you.
Xi – They send greetings.
Putin – And so does my family.
Xi – Thank you.
Putin – Congratulations on landing the rover in Mars.
Xi – Thank you. We are very proud of that accomplishment. It took a lot of planning and commitment.
Putin – The world got to see that nothing will stop you.
Xi – Exactly. And we are just getting started.
Putin – How is the Belt and Road initiative coming along?
Xi – Fabulously. We’re very pleased.
Putin – What does the Belt stand for?
Xi – What we’re putting around their necks to tighten if we have to.
Xi – We are generous, but we need to get something back for our investment.
Putin – Of course.
Xi – How was your meeting with Biden?
Putin – Productive. He listens. I think I can work with him.
Xi – I liked the way you spoke at the press conference following the meeting… denied any Russian involvement in cyberattacks on America, blaming them instead for attacking the rest of us.
Putin – Keeping it simple. I like the way you’re managing the Uyghur problem.
Xi – Eventually, everyone will realize we won’t change our minds. If the world wants cheap cotton and tomatoes and polysilicon for solar panels, Uyghur labor will help provide it.
Putin – Are you really trying to make them more Chinese… the Uyghurs?
Xi – Of course. But they’re hard headed. So we teach them the right way.
Putin – I’m impressed by how the rest of China doesn’t seem to mind.
Xi – There’s not much they can do about it, and it’s all about helping China get stronger. Chinese people get that.
Putin – Trump didn’t seem to mind. He wasn’t critical of the way you’ve handled the matter.
Xi – He understands. Have you heard from him?
Putin – Have not. He’s probably a little depressed… not having all that attention he so enjoyed.
Xi – Reminds me of what life would be like if I ever agreed to step down. I can better understand why Mao wanted to stay on until the end.
Putin – I feel the same way.
Xi – And so we will govern until our last breath.
Putin – Yes.
Xi – Tell me about Alexei Navalny. I heard Biden wanted you to ensure his safety.
Putin – Yes. I went and visited him in prison, even before my meeting with Biden. I had never met Navalny.
Xi – What was that like?
Putin – He has these romantic ideas about what Russians want. How Russians are desperate for freedom of expression. Makes you wonder if they ever talk to other Russians and not just to themselves.
Xi – Will he survive prison? Biden seemed worried about that.
Putin – I will do everything possible.
Xi – Of course. You think they’ll award him the Nobel Prize for peace, Navalny?
Putin – It’s a political move, but prize or no prize, he’ll stay right there in prison.
Xi – Does it worry you that he’s started something that could, possibly, force you out?
Putin – I’ve been in power since 1999 and Russians have come to appreciate the peace at home and the respect we now have from the rest of the world. They know it’s happened because of me.
Xi – I came to power in 2013 and I can also say that my people feel great pride in being respected all over the world. That had never happened before. The one thing that many keep criticizing us about is the lack of freedom. But it’s a misconception. A thinking error. We cannot have freedom without discipline. Discipline to make sure everyone is making their contribution to the great plan for the nation.
Putin – I agree. Americans keep talking about it as if you could have it without restrictions. We have freedom in Russia. You can start a business. You can go to university. You can travel. You can even organize politically but within certain limits.
Xi – The limits being that you remain in power.
They both laugh.
Xi – Same in China. Americans talk a lot about freedom but nowhere in the world do people shoot each other like they do. I find it incredible that people in Texas worship having the right to carry a gun, as if that were real freedom. If there were real freedom in that land, people wouldn’t be so paranoid.
Putin – Too much inequality breeds paranoia.
Xi – Their real freedom is their right to vote and elect who you want.
Xi has surprised himself with the last statement.
Xi – (an embarrassed look at Putin) I did say that, didn’t I?
Putin – (smiles) Yes, you did.
Xi – Well… eventually the Chinese will get to vote in free elections. But that is not the phase of development we’re in. It will take years… 30-40 years perhaps. For now we have to instill discipline in the people. And it takes time. How do you see America’s situation now?
Putin – They are in a period of confusion. The assault on the Capitol is a sign of it. There are deep fractures in the political matrix of the country that suggest opportunities that we could take advantage of… if we work together.
Xi – Interesting. Go on.
Putin – There are parts of the population in America that would prefer a system like ours. The other day, one of their generals, retired now, a Trump supporter, was quoted as saying ‘Why couldn’t we have a coup in America, like there was in Myanmar?’
Xi – Unheard of before Trump.
Putin – I’m sure the general wasn’t talking of a coup to empower proletarians…
Xi – Of course not.
Putin – … but to further empower plutocrats, the super wealthy… the ones who run the big businesses and get away with paying no taxes.
Xi – I won’t let that happen in China.
Putin – I liked the way you set limits on Jack Ma.
Xi – Right. No matter how much money you have, no matter how big your company is, you do not criticize the governing party. But you can do it in America. But please do continue giving me your opinion of America.
Putin – Biden wants to unite the country… but he can’t do it on his own. I don’t think so. He needs allies in the Republican party. The problem is that no one is stepping forward. Most of them are still thinking Trump is their best choice.
Xi – You don’t think so?
Putin – Trump is not centered enough as a person. He had his moment. But there are Republicans who could step forward and say, ‘We have to work with Biden, the country needs it.’ Until that happens, America will drift, working at cross purposes, wasting time and energy… and… giving us the opportunity to take advantage of their confusion.
Xi – What were you thinking of?
Putin – I have seen how effective you have been in suppressing the dissent in Hong Kong. I am confident you could do the same in Taiwan.
Putin and Xi look at each other as they pause.
Xi – I have thought about it. Americans are very vulnerable in the semiconductor industry, now so concentrated in Taiwan.
Putin – And it will take them years to catch up. So… it may be a great opportunity to act.
Xi – We have discussed it… the pros and cons.
Putin – I could help.
Xi – How so?
Putin – America will not go to war with me if I choose to invade and annex the Ukraine. What do they care?
Xi – Hmm… but such an action would distract them enough for us to… at the same time… invade and annex Taiwan.
Putin – Exactly… and by controlling the semiconductor market, you’ll have the world on its knees.
Xi – Indeed. Hmm. We have discussed it, the pros and cons.
Putin – My bet is… that America will not go to war with you over Taiwan, either. They’ll swallow their pride and kick themselves for not thinking ahead when they had time to do it.
Xi – Good point. America will feel demoralized, weakened.
Putin – And it will give me an opportunity to extend my influence over Eastern Europe.
Xi -What were you thinking of?
Putin – Poland, Hungary… Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia… maybe Finland. The European Union is weak, more so now since Brexit. And there’s no hiding that some prefer autocracies.
Xi – I see. We have discussed it, the pros and cons. We will be moving into Afghanistan, of course, once the Taliban take over after the Americans leave.
Putin – Good luck with that. We didn’t do well there.
Xi – Ah, but you didn’t have the Belt and Road initiative like we do.
Putin – (laughs) Tighten that belt around their necks if they don’t cooperate.
Xi – Exactly.
Putin – However… there’s always the risk… that Americans will pull together and decide to fight.
Xi – You think Biden will rally them for a fight?
Putin – There is that possibility…
Xi – If so… Americans may end up more united than ever.
Putin – They are creative… and can be very determined…
Xi – When they have a bold leader. You think Biden is that man?
Putin – Good question… I wonder… but he could be… he just could be.
Xi – We would be risking a lot if we chose to act as we have spoken…
Putin – True.
Xi – … and the rest of the world may not be forgiving.
Putin – But it is very tempting, isn’t it… since America is so divided.
Xi – Yes. But we cannot forget that our economy keeps growing… no one is growing like we are… we keep reaching more and more markets… and we may discover, as I suspect, that we can outcompete America… and not have to fire a single shot… and maybe that’s the real war we’re now fighting.
Putin – Very good point.
Xi –We Chinese are very disciplined. That’s our advantage.
Putin – (looking a bit worried) It’s a different challenge… I get that.
Xi – Do you think Russians can outcompete Americans?
Putin – Good question.
The two men pause for a moment.
Xi – What would you have to do?
Putin – I am not sure. But I worry that I will have to grant more freedom to increase competitiveness.
Xi – Which would threaten your position.
Putin – Yes.
Xi – You’re not alone… I worry about it, also.
Xi clasps his hands as he pauses for a moment.
Sometimes… I think it is inevitable.
Putin – What?
Xi – That sooner or later, Chinese will want more freedom… even demand it.
Putin – Repression works up to a point… but we can make it last.
Xi – Taking the long view… I do think that you and I… are only transitional leaders… leaders without the conviction that men are at their best when they can govern themselves.
Putin smiles to himself, pensively. And he thinks of Alexei Navalny.
Xi – Shall we eat something?
Putin – Yes.
The two men rise and walk to the table filled with delicacies.
To be continued
Oscar Valdes. Oscarvaldes.net