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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Power, Patience, Grain: Xi Jinping's Careful Calculations On Ukraine

According to a new report, the world’s primary recipient of Ukrainian grain is China, and the pace of exports has exceeded pre-war levels. But the Chinese leader’s long game goes much further.

Photo of a man taking a photo from a beach of ships leaving the port of Chornomorsk

Ships carrying Ukrainian grain leave Chornomorsk sea port on Aug. 7

China’s all-powerful leader Xi Jinping now stands at the very center of the geopolitical arena — and that makes him pivotal for what happens in the war in Ukraine.

Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen the list of global leaders lining up: Russian President Vladimir Putin has basically bet his entire future on him; French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen came to China to try to stop him from send arms to Putin; U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to squeeze a spot into Xi’s busy schedule; and, yes, Volodymyr Zelensky is nervously waiting for a call from Beijing.

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What to make of this choreography? Most China experts say only one thing with certainty: the ancient “Middle Kingdom” is proceeding cautiously — and playing for time. Or as the Chinese proverb says: "If you sit on the riverbank long enough, sooner or later, the corpse of your enemy will float by."

Ukraine itself has a prominent place on the map of Beijing's considerations, but for different reasons than one might think. It’s not for its role in fighting for independence and democracy, nor as an opponent of Russia, or future member of the European Union.

Weight of agriculture exports

First, Xi Jinping sees an opportunity to play a diplomatic role as mediator in the war, to achieve a stronger position vis a vis the United States. The practical objective is to end the disruption to global commerce — and above all to avoid that Russia uses, or even brandishes, its nuclear weapons — proving to the rest of the world that Beijing can bring stability to the world in a way that Washington no longer can.

But the other, more surprising interest in Ukraine for Beijing is in its agricultural might. Much was made last year about the importance of making sure grain exports from Ukraine were not blocked. But now, as Kyiv-basedUkrainska Pravda reports, media project Weekly Charts has published a report on Ukrainian grain exports, and it turns out that the primary recipients are not Europe or Africa, but China.

China has been taking advantage of multiple opportunities to make money.

A record number of ships from Ukraine to China (25) were dispatched as part of the grain treaty in February, totaling 1.2 million tons. Moreover, since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and after the reopening of the grain corridor, China has become the leading buyer of Ukrainian export, taking in more than one-third of the total 26 million tons of shipments that are transported via the sea corridor. Most of these shipments are grain and corn.

photo of xi and macron walking with a woman interpreter behind them

Xi and Macron on Friday, the last day of the French President's state visit.

Liu Bin/Xinhua via ZUMA

Russian oil and gas

The current volume of Ukraine-to-China grain shipments is believed to exceed the record of 2021. At that time, China bought 28 million tons of corn on world markets, about 7 million tons of which came from Ukraine.

China's annual corn consumption has grown steadily throughout the last decade, reaching nearly 300 million tons last year. From June 2022 to February 2023, imports of corn to China amounted to 9.2 million tons, more than 4 million tons of which were of Ukrainian origin. On this export route, Ukraine has now surpassed the United States.

Of course, China has been taking advantage of multiple opportunities to make money from the war: Beijing buys oil and gas from Russia at one-third the price, and cheap grain from Ukraine. Russia faces sanctions, and Ukraine has to maximize sales.

Photo of a man running his hand through a shipment of grain during inspection as ships rom Ukraine arrive in Istanbul, Turkey.

Inspecting ships carrying grain from Ukraine as it arrives in Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkish Defense Ministry/Xinhua/ZUMA

Pacification or Putin demise?

But the possibilities for "profits and gains" with the Ukraine war go beyond imports and exports. For so-called neutral countries such as China, the war is an opportunity to establish a more advantageous position in the emerging new world. For Beijing that means direct political competition with the United States, especially after Turkey tried and failed to take the role of global arbiter.

Ukrainian President Zelensky was asked about Xi recently: "What about the leader of China? I think this is the right time, and he is one of the leaders who are wagering, let's say. We must do everything possible to work with the maximum number of countries, no matter how far they are, to win the war."

"Boundless friendship" with Russia was merely a rhetorical device.

Xi's peace plan announced last month, on the face of it, certainly does not look like the best option for Ukraine — yet Zelensky and his entourage are well aware that the outcome of the war and the future of Ukraine depend on where Russia is at the end. And ultimately, Russia will wind up wherever Washington and Beijing agree.

That explains why Xi accepted the visit this past week with Macron and von der Leyen, but has postponed communication with Biden and Zelensky. He is indeed waiting and gathering information to offer the most favorable option for himself in exchange for the pacification, or perhaps even overthrow, of Putin.

As China's ambassador to the EU, Fu Tsung, has clarified, the statement that came out of the Xi-Putin summit in Moscow about "boundless friendship" with Russia was merely a rhetorical device. Still, even as China aims to continue trading and gauging its options with all parties, Xi knows he can only watch the river flow by for so long.

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Livestream Shopping Is Huge In China — Will It Fly Elsewhere?

Streaming video channels of people shopping has been booming in China, and is beginning to win over customers abroad as a cheap and cheerful way of selling products to millions of consumers glued to the screen.

A A female volunteer promotes spring tea products via on-line live streaming on a pretty mountain surrounded by tea plants.

In Beijing, selling spring tea products via on-line live streaming.

Xinhua / ZUMA
Gwendolyn Ledger

SANTIAGOTikTok, owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has spent more than $500 million to break into online retailing. The app, best known for its short, comical videos, launched TikTok Shop in August, aiming to sell Chinese products in the U.S. and compete with other Chinese firms like Shein and Temu.

Tik Tok Shop will have three sections, including a live or livestream shopping channel, allowing users to buy while watching influencers promote a product.

This choice was strategic: in the past year, live shopping has become a significant trend in online retailing both in the U.S. and Latin America. While still an evolving technology, in principle, it promises good returns and lower costs.

Chilean Carlos O'Rian Herrera, co-founder of Fira Onlive, an online sales consultancy, told América Economía that live shopping has a much higher catchment rate than standard website retailing. If traditional e-commerce has a rate of one or two purchases per 100 visits to your site, live shopping can hike the ratio to 19%.

Live shopping has thrived in China and the recent purchases of shopping platforms in some Latin American countries suggests firms are taking an interest. In the United States, live shopping generated some $20 billion in sales revenues in 2022, according to consultants McKinsey. This constituted 2% of all online sales, but the firm believes the ratio may become 20% by 2026.

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