Normally when Xi travels, especially on an overseas trip, there is a full-court press. For a trip to the U.S. to meet the leader of the free world, greater coverage would seem to be warranted. However, when the two presidents met in Florida during the early hours in China, there was almost no reporting at all. No photos of Xi. Discussions about the event appeared to be blocked and censored.
Only in the late afternoon hours Friday did the state media start to report more detail of the Trump-Xi summit — though the articles have largely included only basic information. For example: Trump’s acceptance of Xi’s invitation to China.
People on Sina Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, have been mainly focused on the fashion of Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan and the handshake between the two presidents. “The handshake looks very gentle,” one user wrote.
Zhang Ming, professor of political science at Renmin University told CNBC the reason for the near radio silence is because the Chinese government is still nervous about what will come out of the Trump-Xi summit and how it could affect Xi’s image back home. Chinese government officials are meticulous at planning events and tend to shy away from anything impromptu.
“Chinese people associate a leader’s image with the ability to rule. If he doesn’t have a good image, there will be trouble,” Zhang explained. “Trump is very hard to predict so there is a lot of uncertainty in this meeting.”
Separately, there has been talk in China about how the U.S. airstrike on Syria could influence the Trump-Xi meeting and what signal it sends to the Chinese about North Korea. Trump has indicated he plans to push his Chinese counterpart to get tougher on Pyongyang, Beijing’s longtime ally. North Korea, for its part, test-fired a ballistic missile ahead of the Trump-Xi meeting.
At a regular press briefing in Beijing Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry called for calm and for all sides to “stick to political settlements.” It also said China opposes the use of chemical weapons.
Zhang Lifan, a prominent scholar of Chinese history, speculated that another reason authorities overseeing the local media were so cautious Friday was because Xi could be potentially embarrassed if Trump gets tough with him on North Korea.
“Xi won’t appear strong on this issue as he is always painted to be [by the government] and he won’t want the people to see it,” scholar Zhang told CNBC. “This is why the state media is so low key reporting this meeting.”
— CNBC’s Daisy Cherry contributed to this report.