China's President Xi hosts world leader banquet after two years of isolation

Heads of state invited to the Winter Olympic Games' inauguration are pictured at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Feb 5, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a banquet on Saturday (Feb 5) for heads of state and international organisations attending the Winter Olympics, part of a diplomatic blitz following nearly two years without face-to-face meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Xi has launched a diplomatic marathon in the lead-up to the Games, meeting Russian President and "old friend" Vladimir Putin on Friday and attending the Olympics opening ceremony later in the evening with dozens of foreign guests.

Beijing is keen to shore up international support and pull off a Games that will burnish its reputation, despite multiple countries including the United States, Australia, Britain and Canada announcing diplomatic boycotts over China's rights record.

Dozens of dignitaries were treated to musical performances and a traditional handicrafts display alongside the meal at the Great Hall of the People, state media reported.

This week's meetings are a striking change for Mr Xi, who has avoided travelling abroad or meeting foreign visitors face to face since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

China has largely closed its borders for the last two years in a zero-Covid strategy.

Besides Mr Putin, the banquet guestlist included Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as well as leaders from Europe and Asia Pacific, including Singapore's President Halimah Yacob, according to Chinese state media.

Heads of international bodies, including the World Health Organisation's Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus whom state media said was among the Olympic torchbearers, were also invited.

Mr Xi gave a toast at the banquet, calling for all present to "work together for a world of durable peace", according to an official transcript.

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres also gave speeches praising China's management of the Olympics and handling of the pandemic.

CCTV showed a massive banquet table featuring a miniature winter landscape dotted with replicas of the Olympic venues as its centrepiece, lit from above by crystal chandeliers.

Chefs also recreated scenes from nature using food, including a group of frolicking panda figurines.

The Chinese President had individual meetings on the sidelines of the banquet on Saturday, including reaffirming his support for the Kazakh President, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Beijing in January praised Mr Tokayev's "strong measures" against protesters after the Kazakh leader took a hardline approach to quell demonstrations - including authorising his forces to shoot to kill.

On Saturday, Mr Xi told his Kazakh counterpart that China "is ready to help Kazakhstan maintain stability", according to a readout after the meeting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb 4, 2022.

Mr Xi was photographed greeting Mr Putin on Friday, with both men going maskless, even though the Russian leader had skipped the lengthy quarantine normally required in China for people arriving from overseas.

The two signed a joint statement criticising the United States' global influence and opposing the further expansion of Nato, amid a diplomatic standoff between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine.

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