When Vladimir Putin decided to place a blanket over China’s first lady during the APEC summit, few thought that the Russian president’s simple act would become a deep political symbol of contemporary international events.


Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) puts on a shawl for Chinese President Xi Jinping's wife Peng Liyuan (second right) while Chinese President Xi Jinping (second left) and U.S. President Barack Obama (left) waiting for a fireworks show after the Welcome Banquet the 2014 APEC summit. Photo: AFP

The recent APEC summit in China was marked by the growing interest of all major nations in strengthening bilateral ties with Beijing in the Pacific. In addition to paying attention to the substantive aspects of the negotiations, though, the media also gave “blanket coverage” to the attention Vladimir Putin paid to the spouse of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In that connection, it is worth recalling similar situations at past summits, and what the consequences were.

Newspaper reports on diplomatic receptions and congresses in the 19th century resembled accounting records: this much land annexed, this much seized. Lyrical digressions were few and far between, and not particularly welcome: Diplomatic news was the domain of serious people, who frowned upon frivolity

The new open diplomacy, proclaimed almost simultaneously by the United States and Soviet Russia in 1917, allowed diplomats to leave the hushed confines of smoke-filled drawing rooms. The first major conference to touch upon serious issues in the presence of journalists was the Washington Conference of 1921-22. Later, the general public was given a chance to view, for example, the debates of the San Francisco Conference in 1945, which established the United Nations.

In fact, it was San Francisco that convinced ordinary Americans that Soviet diplomats were noisy, pushy, and not overly concerned with the finer points of diplomatic etiquette. Perhaps that contributed to the subsequent collapse in the U.S.-Soviet alliance and the start of the Cold War, since the contrast between the propaganda-generated "friendly Russia" and the real-life behavior of its representatives was too striking.

With the advent of the television age in the mid-20th century, the general public could see for itself what previously had been a matter of conjecture: The global powers were, in fact, represented by ordinary people replete with foibles, emotional outbursts, slips of the tongue, and various oddities.

Paradoxically, TV did not become a new step on the road to open diplomacy; on the contrary, real public debate gave way to visual effects and shows of protocol. Summit diplomacy became an element of mass culture. For TV viewers, reports about menus and the interior decoration of presidential suites were more interesting than the stodgy details of signed declarations and memoranda. The public was quite contented with being served up a final press conference, and leaders able to bring a touch of variety to the protocol format acquired an advantage over their less charismatic colleagues.

Of course, the assortment of verbal slips, outbursts, and absurdities added spice to the reports of top-level meetings. In this regard, some leaders were solid gold for journalists, and their departure from office was mourned in some narrow corporate circles. For example, it was a rare summit indeed that did not see a howler from George W. Bush — be it falling off his bike, confusing Austria with Australia, or hugging German Chancellor Angela Merkel for no reason whatsoever. George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin famously described themselves as friends, and the one thing that the Russian president seems to have taken from his American counterpart is that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.

International audiences became used to Russian-Soviet attempts to shock: the Soviet shoe-banging delegation at a meeting of the UN General Assembly (the first to remove his footwear was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, quickly followed by his subordinates, including the stern and forbidding Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, known as "Mister No"), Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s triple kiss for everyone — from India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s impromptu turn as a conductor of an orchestra during a visit to Germany.

In talking to Russian and foreign journalists, Putin has long peppered his comments with risqué jokes, and since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, perhaps to lighten the psychological stress, has made them a mandatory part of his interviews and press conferences.

The story of the blanket thrown over the shoulders of Peng Liyuan, the wife of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping reveals another side of Putin's public image. Clearly, there was no political spin at work here; more likely the Russian president simply decided to display his inherent chivalry towards women. But think about what would have happened if, instead of Peng Liyuan, the shoulders in question had belonged to, say, Angela Merkel or Michelle Obama? Would Putin have swung into action? Unlikely.

The blanket event was a deep political symbol of contemporary international events, even if Putin was not aware of it at the time. Against a backdrop of deteriorating relations with the West, Russia is keen to vitalize contacts with China, which have long been intentionally restricted. Many commentators immediately noted that Russia had made a strategic choice and effectively agreed to accept the status of "weak sister" inside the Chinese orbit.

It is inconceivable that Putin does not feel or understand that fact. In Russia’s symbolic code of conduct (and not only Russia’s), a man who helps to cover the shoulders of a woman is demonstrating not only concern, but also strength, stressing the weakness of the fairer sex. Online wags are already joking that if Putin had a chance he would gladly throw a blanket over not only the wife of Xi Jinping, but also the president himself — in order to show how the older brother takes care of the younger.

But, alas, such mode of conduct in relations between Moscow and Beijing went out of fashion half a century ago. The political realities in 2014 mean that Russia is becoming increasingly wrapped up in China’s duvet.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.