Vladimir Putin act of chivalry causes controversy

Vladimir Putin, right, covers the Chinese first lady's shoulders with a shawl. Picture: AP
Vladimir Putin, right, covers the Chinese first lady's shoulders with a shawl. Picture: AP
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It was a warm gesture on a chilly night when Russian president Vladimir Putin wrapped a shawl around Xi Jinping’s wife while the Chinese president chatted with Barack Obama.

The only problem was that Mr Putin came off looking gallant, while the Chinese summit host appeared bad mannered.

Worse still were off-colour jokes that began to circulate about the real intentions of the divorced Russian president – admired by many Chinese women for his macho image.

The incident during ceremonies linked to this week’s Asia-Pacific summit was broadcast on state TV, and shared online.

But it was all too much for the Chinese authorities who soon acted to take down the video from the Chinese internet, apparently concerned that Mr Xi was being shown in a bad light.

Beijing-based commentator Zhang Lifan: “China is traditionally conservative on public interaction between unrelated men and women, and the public show of consideration by Putin may provide fodder for jokes, which the big boss [Mr Xi] probably does not like.”

Mr Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, was once a popular folk singer and has taken on a much more public role than her predecessors.

She prominently joins her husband on trips abroad as part of China’s soft power push to seek global status commensurate with its economic might.

Propaganda officials have built the image of Mr Xi and his wife as a loving couple. Photos of him shielding her from rain on a state visit, picking flowers for her or simply holding her hand have circulated widely on China’s social media.

But Mr Putin’s show of chivalry did not sit well with the Chinese state’s prescribed image of the loving couple.

In the video, Ms Peng stood up, politely accepted the shawl offered by Mr Putin and thanked him with a slight bow.

But she soon slipped it off and put on a black coat offered by her own attendant.

It spawned a flurry of comment on China’s social media before censors began removing any mention of the incident.

Li Xin, director of Russian and central Asian studies at Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said Mr Putin had done nothing untoward.

“It’s a tradition in Russia for a man of dignity to respect ladies on public occasions, and in a cold country like Russia, it is very normal that a gentleman should help ladies take on and off their coats,” Mr Li said. “But the Chinese may not be accustomed to that.”

Aside from the shawl incident, Mr Putin and Mr Obama were on the surface all niceties – a pat on the back here, a pleasantry there. But away from the cameras, the two leaders circled each other warily as they came face-to-face amid continuously deteriorating relations between their two countries.

The White House said Mr Obama and Mr Putin spoke three times on Tuesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific economic meeting, tackling some of the tough issues that divide them, including Russia’s provocations in Ukraine and support for Syria’s embattled government. They also discussed the fast-approaching deadline in nuclear talks with Iran, in which the US and Russia find themselves on the same negotiating team.

Unlike at some of their past meetings, Mr Obama and Mr Putin kept their policy disagreements under wraps. But their public encounters suggested their relationship remains tense.

The picturesque Yanqi Lake, just outside Beijing, was the venue for an awkward pas de deux between two leaders. At times they looked like sidekicks to Chinese president Xi Jinping. The summit’s host led the way, flanked by Mr Obama and Mr Putin.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Mr Putin said in Mr Obama’s direction. Yes, it is, concurred a reticent Mr Obama, avoiding eye contact with Mr Putin.

As the three presidents came to a stop at the head of the table, Mr Putin reached out to give Mr Obama a slap on the back. But Mr Obama had turned in a different direction, and it did not appear that the hand landed on its intended target.

A few hours later, the two again found themselves in close quarters under an overcast sky as leaders planted trees in honour of their countries. Mr Putin strode confidently up to his tree, ahead of Mr Obama, who clasped his hands behind his back before picking up a shovel and greeting a Spanish TV crew with a wave.

Neither the White House nor the Kremlin offered much in the way of detail about the policy conversations Mr Obama and Mr Putin had on the sidelines. Mr Putin’s spokesman said they had touched on “bilateral relations, the situation around Ukraine, Syria and Iran”.

The US is furious over Russia’s presumed role in fuelling pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine. White House officials have accused Russia of sending heavy weapons to the separatists and shelling Ukrainian troops, and have denounced Russia’s build-up of forces along the border.

Russia’s economy has taken a major hit following US and European Union sanctions – the rouble has plunged by a third this year and hit an all-time low last week – but Mr Putin has dismissed the notion that he is hurting at the hands of the West. Addressing the Asia-Pacific summit on Monday, Mr Putin said his government had the resources to stabilise its currency without emergency measures.

For Mr Obama and Mr Putin, awkward encounters at international gatherings have become almost expected, mainly over the Ukraine crisis. Tensions were evident in June at the D-Day anniversary commemorations in Normandy and last year during a summit in Northern Ireland. At the Northern Irish summit, Mr Putin slumped in his chair and sat stone-faced as Mr Obama tried to joke about the Russian leader’s athletic ability.

Mr Obama later said Mr Putin frequently looks like “the bored kid in the back of the classroom”.