BEIJING — Domestic politics trumps international politics, in China as everywhere. So even though China lost a friend in President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who died in Caracas on Tuesday, the homepage of the Xinhua News Agency online today is mostly filled with news of the National People’s Congress meeting in Beijing, where important appointments will be made, such as naming a new president (certain to be Xi Jinping, barring an extraordinary and unforeseen event.)
Venezuela and China’s relationship has been very close, especially economically. Yet reporting Mr. Chávez’s death, Xinhua’s homepage had only a small box with a photograph of him and five topics next to it; two chronologies (a “simple introduction” and “major events.”) A third asked “did America poison him?” and the final items were “who next” and “analysis.” Still, photographs of Mr. Chávez were displayed prominently, in rotation, with photographs from the congress.
The reaction was more low key than one might have expected, raising the question: is China, despite its professions of friendship, perhaps distancing itself from the polarizing figure who has dominated politics in Venezuela for over a decade as people here and there wonder, what next?
(Later in the day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said: “”President Chávez was an outstanding leader of Venezuela, and a good friend of the Chinese people.”)
The question of the poison is curious, as is the prominence given to it by Xinhua.
Xinhua’s story, datelined Caracas, cited Venezuela’s vice president, Nicolás Maduro, as saying that Mr. Chávez had been the target of a “technical and scientific attack” by Americans to induce illness (in Xinhua’s words. Other media, including The New York Times, also reported Mr. Maduro’s comments. The accusation is not new.)
The Xinhua report did little to support Mr. Maduro’s assertions, noting that since June 2011 Mr. Chávez has frequently sought treatment in Cuba for cancer. Xinhua said Mr. Chávez had “tumors in the pelvic cavity” (that might be singular, since Chinese doesn’t necessarily distinguish between singular and plural.)
On China’s busy microblogs, the issue was raised, but barely. While ordinary Chinese would have no way of knowing either way, the lack of interest may indicate they thought it not a topic worthy of discussion. By noon on Wednesday, there were around 200 comments for “Chávez technological scientific attack” and about 140 for “Chávez poison.” By Chinese standards, that’s a damp squib.
Still, the death of Mr. Chávez is a challenge for China. As Matt Ferchen of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy wrote before Mr. Chávez’s death but after his serious illness was known, China’s close friendship has produced deep economic ties but could lead to problems.
Mr Chávez’s re-election to a third term late last year “elicited almost universal praise from Chinese media and foreign policy analysts,” noted Mr. Ferchen, who specializes in China’s relationship with other developing nations. The two countries have a very strong economic relationship, he noted, based mostly on China’s growing oil needs.
In fact, the China Development Bank, China’s “Superbank,” “has led China’s financing efforts in Venezuela with more than U.S. $42 billion in loans-for-oil deals since 2007,” Mr. Ferchen wrote.
Those deals represent “the bank’s largest loan exposure anywhere outside of China and account for nearly 60 percent of the bank’s loans to Latin America and the Caribbean,” Mr. Ferchen noted.
Mr. Chávez’s death could threaten all that, he writes, against a background of “a reinvigorated Venezuelan political opposition movement.”
“Henrique Capriles, the youthful leader of the opposition, has stated that if he were president, while not seeking to overturn the loans-for-oil deals with China, he would review their legality,” wrote Mr. Ferchen, pointing out that little is known publicly about the details of the deals.
The risk? “China may learn that partnerships of convenience with polarizing, strong-man leaders like Chávez can also quickly and unexpectedly become highly inconvenient,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, in the microblogging sphere, there was support for Mr. Chávez.
One person on Sina Weibo, @guda baihua, wrote that after the death of Mr. Chávez, whom he described as an “anti-American fighter,” the Huffington Post carried many comments from Americans supporting him, and he translated them into Chinese.
So in Chinese, monicaangela said: “Rest in Peace, President Chávez. … Thank you for fighting the oil companies and nationalizing the oil of Venezuela so that those profits could be used to life the people of your nation up.”
And, also in Chinese, Dean Adams wrote: “He was far from perfect but he certainly had the interest of ALL of his people at heart. More than can be said for many of the elected officials in this country.”