China Insider

China Insider Podcast | Messi’s Controversial Visit in Hong Kong, Ukraine Update, and Russia-China Relations

Senior Fellow and Director, China Center

Shane Leary joins Miles Yu to discuss the controversy that erupted in Hong Kong and mainland China when Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi missed a game due to injury, and the subsequent claims from Chinese Communist Party officials about Central Intelligence Agency coordination. They then review waning support for Ukraine and how this fits into the broader adversarial relationship between the United States and China. Finally, they cover a recent phone call between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, and the state of Russia-China relations today.

China Insider is a weekly podcast project from Hudson Institute's China Center, hosted by Miles Yu, who provides weekly news that mainstream American outlets often miss, as well as in-depth commentary and analysis on the China challenge and the free world’s future. 

Episode Transcript

This transcription is automatically generated and edited lightly for accuracy. Please excuse any errors.

Miles Yu:

Welcome to China Insider, a podcast from Hudson Institute's China Center. 

Shane Leary:

It's Tuesday, February 13th and we have three topics this week. The first is the controversy which erupted in Hong Kong and mainland China when Lionel Messi missed a game due to injury and the claims of CIA coordination that followed. The second is Miles’ thoughts on waning support for Ukraine and the United States and how this affects our adversarial relationship with China. Third, we discussed a recent phone call between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and the state of Russia-China relations today. Miles, how are you? 

Miles Yu:

Very good, Shane.

Shane Leary:

Great me as well. So for our first topic, Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer superstar, caused quite a bit of a stir in Hong Kong and mainland China when he did not appear in a match in Hong Kong this past week. While he and his team cited an injury as the reason, he's been accused of refusing to play in the match for political motivations, especially in light of the fact that he played a match in Japan just a few days later, the Global Times, the English language mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, suggested as much saying “external forces deliberately wanted to embarrass Hong Kong through this incident.” And we've seen quite a bit of fuss on social media over this as well. So Miles, how is it that this caused such a stir and what do you make of it? 

Miles Yu:

This is similarly a bizarre incident, but then if you understand how the Chinese Communist Party operates then you have the perfect answer. This case, the Lionel Messi incident, is a perfect illustration of China's political schizophrenia and ideological paranoia. Let explain how: the CCP’s fundamental assumption of world affairs is that there is a well coordinated, constantly hostile international conspiracy to topple the Chinese Communist government. So the CCP is obsessed with finding all sorts of tangible evidence, mostly imagined evidence, to support such lunacy and to justify such paranoia. So normally a tiny incident could easily be made into a huge deal of such international conspiracy. This Lionel Messi incident is a good example of that. In the 10 days since Messi was benched in that Hong Kong soccer game due to injury, the CCP’s enormous propaganda machine has connected all the dots of a gigantic international conspiracy against China behind Messi’s no-show in play. 

First of all, there's Argentina. Argentina is always the test ground of an ideological battle between the political economy and free market economy. Argentina was one of China's safe bets for a socialist paradise in the Western hemisphere as it had been dominated by left wing political forces for a long time. However, that was the case until the sudden election of a free market economist named Javier Gerardo Milei in December, 2023 just a few months ago. Milei’s victory not only stunned the world, but also it's a victory with a just and righteous vengeance. He wanted to declare war on socialism and the enemies of freedom. So one of the first things that President Milei did was to tell the CCP to get lost on bringing Argentina to the China dominated pack of BRICS, whose membership Argentina's past political leaders had applied for and committed to. 

So this was a huge middle finger to the CCP from a Beijing point of view because Lionel Messi is the ultimate symbol of Argentina's international soft power and a superstar. So the hysteria against the message of no play in one soccer game is used by CCP as a way to express its retribution and punishment against Argentina in general and the President Milei in particular. So secondly, there is this imagination of the soccer club Messi is playing for — the Inter Miami, based in Miami, Florida. Because China believed that this club, that Lionel Messi is playing for, is the anti-Communist Front organization with close collaboration with the CIA. The Global Times China's official publication on international affairs, which is the sort of a subsidiary of the People's Daily, Global Times in Chinese is huanqiu shibao 环球时报. On February 8th it published a hit piece entitled, I read this, “Messi’s Soccer Club Bosses have ties to the CIA.”

This is the title, the owners are Jorge and Jose Mas Brothers, but there's a third owner that China didn't mention that is the British superstar, David Beckham. But that's a different story. The Global Times article actually says that the Mas Brothers father fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba and was recruited by the CIA as an anti-communist agent. This is according to Global Times. And it concluded by saying that I quote, “it is highly unlikely that Messi’s snob to Hong Kong and China was his personal decision. It's the most likely that he acted according to the instructions given to him by his bosses in Miami.” This is Global Times. It's embarrassing, it's just so silly. But this is how Chinese Communist Party thinks. 

Thirdly, I think there's also the issue of Japan, because after Hong Kong, Messi and his team moved to Japan to play. This seems to be the favorite fall guy and piñata is Japan because they always try to drum up xenophobia and the international conspiracy inside China. Japan's the perfect target. Messi played in Tokyo the next day for about 30 minutes because he felt better physically. Now this gives China a huge, huge excuse to attack Messi and the international conspiracy. Hu Xijin, the CCP’s notorious propaganda windbag, former chief editor of the Global Times, who holds a Twitter account that has been a main channel of CCP’s international disinformation campaign. Now Hu Xiin's Twitter account has a team of the CCPs leading experts in propaganda and disinformation writing each of his tweets for the worldwide audience. And on February 6th Hu Xijin's Twitter account had this to say and I quote, “why didn't Messi play in Hong Kong and participate in the handshake with the Hong Kong chief executive, and why did he smile and run freely and look fit in Japan?” Of course this is conspiracy and then Hu Xijin further demanded Messi for a formal explanation and apology. You see so Hu Xijin and the Chinese Communist Party is just another piece of evidence proving Messi’s evil intent. 

And then there is this touchy matter of Hong Kong because Hong Kong has been used as the CCPs new patenting village, a fake Freeport that demands global respect. In fact, Messi is guilty of being pro Hong Kong people's aspiration for human rights and freedom. Now you recall back in 2017 a Hong Kong super fan of Messi — a gentleman by the name of Howard Lam — wrote to Messi directly who was playing in Barcelona at the time and asked Messi for an autograph the photo so that he could send it to another super fan of Messi’s — the famous jailed 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, human rights activists — Liu Xiaobo. Liu Xiaobo was a big fan of Messi. So Messi immediately responded to Mr. Lam's request and sent the autograph the photo to Howard Lam in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, by the time the photo arrived in Mr. Lam's hands in Hong Kong, Liu Xiaobo had died of cancer. 

But the CCP agent got wind of this and sent cops to Hong Kong to beat up Mr. Lam so severely that he had to be hospitalized. So the case must have enraged Messi because this was a much publicized case at the time. So last week the CCP knew Messi’s sympathy with the Chinese human rights cause and so made the connection between that incident in 2017 and the soccer game. CCP’s proxies in Hong Kong, they all mobilized and they minced no words to attack Messi. And their hysteria is very hilarious as well as ridiculous. The main pro-CCP figure who was in charge of Hong Kong's security for a while, Ms. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee wrote on her Twitter account on February 7th, and I quote, “Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.” And there's more. Ms. Yee further wrote and I quote “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them for the deliberate and calculated snap to Hong Kong.” 

There you have it. I mean the international conspiracy, led by international superstar who is now an international supervillain against the socialist model of China. So it's kind of a ridiculous, tragic and also that's how Chinese government functions and there is not only, let me add, finally, the Chinese government in Beijing canceled a scheduled soccer match between Team Argentina and Team China just as well because you know what team China, China's main soccer team, really sucks. It's an international embarrassment and also a laughingstock even by the Chinese fans. If the match which is scheduled in March in Beijing would proceed, the humiliation of defeat by Messi's team will be nuclear and devastating. So the CCP are not stupid. Maybe this is what they mean by win-win. So that's another win-win for China. 

Shane Leary:

It's interesting, I mean when you look at the coverage of the social media, I think you see a lot of this outrage and I think you frame it well that it's paranoid and it shows a certain fragility and some commentators on the Chinese side have in lesser numbers have pointed that out. I want to ask, normally when we talk about social media in China, we talk about censorship, but here we see a sort of storm of outrage and you mentioned the CCP mobilizing proxies in Hong Kong and such. To what degree is this organic, or I guess to what degree does the CCP stir up this controversy and actively drive social media controversy as opposed to merely censoring it when it doesn't benefit it? 

Miles Yu:

One of the main methods was to basically block or delete all this dissenting views that were not in compliance with the Chinese government official opinion. This is a very powerful weapon China utilized in all the social media. They have tens of thousands of people censored each day sitting in front of computer, deleting all the different opinions that will not be tolerated by Beijing. So the result is that if you look at the Chinese social media, which is pretty exorbitant and also active, what you see is avalanche of opinion on one side and there's nothing on the other. So this is heavily censored as if this is really the will of the people. Its not only Twitter, which is based in the United States, is supposed to be a tool of free expression has been fully exploited by the Chinese Communist Party. So all their main propaganda personnels, including their foreign ministries spokesperson and Minister Hu Xijin, of course they have a Twitter account, they can open a Twitter account. 

Twitter is banned in China by the way. So there is spirited propaganda on a daily basis, yet they could actually delete the Twitter users that they don't like. So this is the major problem. They created this false legitimacy of their opinion and this other issue actually the US government has tried to do. When I was the state department, we tried to talk to the Twitter executives on multiple occasions and we say, “Hey listen, if your Twitter software app is banned in certain country and you probably should not really allow the blocking mechanism to be used by that country's propaganda experts” and they say, “no, we cannot do it.” So they won't do that. That's basically the problem perpetuates until this day. I remember we talked to some of the Twitter's compliance and officers and their vice president all over the place, so they just wouldn't budge. So this is one reason why press freedom is so precious. You have to either have hundred percent or you don't have it all. 

Shane Leary:

Turning to our own domestic politics, Congress recently failed to pass legislation which would've continued providing funding for Ukraine. Obviously there was a lot more at stake in terms of immigration and Israel funding as well in this bill, but the fact remains that it appears support might be waning for Ukraine. I want to ask you why do you think this is and what is the relationship between our efforts in Ukraine and the American public's willingness to support those efforts and our adversarial relationship with China? 

Miles Yu:

That's a good question. Similarly, this is a world far away a thousand miles away from China, Asia Pacific, but they're also really intertwined. If you go to Asia, you go to Japan, go to Taiwan and go to the larger Asia Pacific, the war in Ukraine is considered to be intrinsically related to peace and stability in your neighborhood. So this also has a lot of meaning to people, particularly in the United States has to do with our China trust strategy. About a week ago I attended a dinner hosted elegantly by our European, one of the European ambassador to the United States. And so a lot of European colleagues were there. Their overwhelming sentiment is that, oh, there is some kind of a stall progress in Congress to approve the further aid package to Ukraine. They blame overwhelmingly on American isolationism. It's not fair. More importantly, it is not accurate. Isolationism at any given moment in the US history is there, but isolationism did not, has never been or will never be American's dominant strategic outlook because the US is fundamentally a global power with the intrinsic connections with world affairs and global commerce. 

So I mean isolation and by the way in the history of the United States has almost never worked. I would say there were two cases where that was sort of isolation did prevail briefly. The first was President Thomas Jefferson's in 1807 embargo which ruined America’s commerce, and the second was the 1919 Senate rejection of the Versailles Treaty. Well what consequence of that is it had a profound negative impact on Americans prosperity and the global stability in that case. So I think the hesitation of the United States in continuing military and monetary aids to Ukraine is much more complicated and deeply rooted in historical, strategic and geopolitical complexities. And let me just try to entertain a few points. Number one, American has always been supporting Ukrainians war against to repel Russian aggression. So the recent American reluctance to continue support has a lot to do with that there is real no decisive Ukrainian victory. 

So this actually echoes the historical hesitancy of France during the American Revolution because Louis XVI and France and Spain, they were all also sympathetic to the Americans in a fight against the British, our common enemy. But they were not sure whether we could really win until October, 1777, Georgia Washington's army beat the British in the famous battle of Saratoga, New York. That battle of Saratoga in October, 1777 completely convinced the France that the Americans had a chance to win. And so that's turning point. That's what turned France to fully committing its support. This is really much like what's going on in Ukraine. There's a lack of a clear unequivocal success on the battlefield that could galvanize further international support and justify continued aid. This hesitancy stems from concern of Ukraine capacity to secure a definitive history against Russian forces, without which I think American confidence in Ukrainians potential to win would wane. 

Secondly, I think there's also another issue and that is there is sort of the lack of a clear vision for victory. What does the victory look like? What's the end game? Neither Ukrainian leaders nor their US and EU allies have concretely defined the end games of the conflict. Questions remain unanswered. Is there objective to expel Russian forces from Eastern Ukraine or is the reclamation of Crimea a non-negotiable condition for peace? This ambiguity undermines the rationale for aid as policy makers and the public alike grapple with the purpose and potential end state of their support. Thirdly, which is basically, I think it has more to do with China, there is a segment of the American security and the defense community who argues that their focus on Ukraine distracts from the paramount challenge posed by China. I'm not necessarily in favor of their argument because I believe the victory over Russia in Ukraine will actually help our mission to fight China. 

Nevertheless, this argument is gaining momentum. So they contain that supporting Ukraine's conflict is a misallocation of resources given the need to prepare for a potential confrontation with a nation whose economic military capabilities dwarf those of Russia. If Ukraine wants to continue receiving American's aid, this concern must be sufficiently addressed. As I said, I'm not necessarily in favor of this view, but this view has to be more vigorously rebutted because it's gaining influence in Congress and elsewhere. Lastly, I think Ukraine is not very clear, even ambiguous about his relationship with China, and in my view, I think it still has an ongoing illusion about Beijing in this conflict. I think this further complicates the decision to continue to Ukraine because it's past relationship with China, particularly during the corrupt and inept Viktor Yanukovych presidency, was pretty astounding. Ukraine has historically been a significant source of modern Russian design weaponry to China facilitating the modernization of People’s Chinese army. This relationship has included the transfer of critical military technology and hardware to China raising concerns among US strategists about supporting a nation that has indirectly bolstered the capability of American's chief adversary. 

Another part is the current Ukrainian leadership is brilliant and brave and has the world's respect. Definitely, I'm the biggest admirer of President Zelensky, but there is a sort of ongoing unrealistic illusion, a hope for a constructive Chinese role in a future peace settlement or reconstruction in post-war era. And this kind of ongoing illusion and fantasy about China only intensify those concerns leading some American strategists to question the prudence of further aid. It's complicated issue, to blame American isolationism is easy, but it's not the real answer to enhance Ukraine's capability fighting against an aggressor. 

Shane Leary:

And this segues really nicely into our last topic, which is Russia-China relations. This past Thursday, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin had a conversation over the phone before the Chinese New Year, during which she told Putin the two countries ought to “strengthen strategic coordination and resolutely oppose external interference in their internal affairs. The official Kremlin readout stated both leaders specifically stressed that the Russia-China relation is “an important stabilizing factor in world affairs.” So Miles, how does this factor into US support for Ukraine and what should people who are watching the relationship between these two countries take away from this recent interaction between the two leaders? 

Miles Yu:

I mean just this is absurd comedy, to hear Vladimir Putin say Russia and China are the ultimate factors of stabilizing world order. I mean these were the two crankiest aggressors in the world. Let me put it this way, Russia and China, they always claim to have some kind of strategic partnership in probably in the last 157 years. But that relationship really, really conflicted with both nations national interest. It has never worked. Even during the Cold War era, both communist parties and their leaders had a clash of ambitions. China accused Russia of being Marxist revisionist. “They aren’t genuine Marxist-Leninist,” China says when Kruschev denounced Stalin and China went berserk said “Soviet leadership, Soviet Union have completely betrayed the true, straight away from the true course of communism. China is the most authentic system of socialism.” So this is basically where China is. 

Vladimir Putin has a different vision too. I mean, he wants to restore the imperial past of the Russian Empire and not necessarily in a communist way, but he does have this imperial design. China has a combination of communist ideology as well as its imperial past as well. These two think very differently together right now, I think is an alliance of some kind of convenience. Sooner or later, it's not going to work out very well. Now for China, which has many, many enemies in the region, virtually every land country has some problem with China, you name it. So China's neighbors, they'll have this fear of China's imperial design on their territories. But China, in order to face all these enemies, again, China needs to boost its strategic confidence. The only country that can do any meaningful enhancement of China's strategic confidence is Russia. So that's why Russia-China relationship is very important for China. 

That's why the Chinese leader was sucking up to Russia and in a very subservient way, it is just very unsettling to even watch Xi Jinping praise Vladimir Putin. So specifically, you have to really take a clear stance on some major issues. One of the most important one obviously is the Ukraine. Now, China has always, since the beginning of the war, over two years ago, been on the side of Russia. Before Xi Jinping had put his call on the Chinese New Year and saying that Russia and China will have a stronger strategic coordination, China's newly anointed the Defense Minister Admiral Dong Jun and the Russia's Defense Minister Shoigu had a call about a week ago. In that call, Dong Jun specifically said, “China is on the side of Russia over Ukraine.” This is the most blatant statement by the Chinese Defense Minister and of course reflects the Chinese leadership thinking. They don't need any veil. They don't need any disguise to be on the opposite of the global opinion. So that's why when Xi Jinping put in say, “Hey, listen, we're going to have a stronger strategic coordination.” Coordinating to do what? Basically to help Russia win a war in Ukraine, to help Hamas overpower Israel and to create all kinds of strategic distractions to the United States. So United States would not be able to focus on China in Asia Pacific region. So this is pretty obvious to me. 

Shane Leary:

Well, Miles, I think that's all the time we have for today. Thanks so much for taking the time, and I look forward to doing this again next week. 

Miles Yu:

Okay, see you next week. Shane. 

Shane Leary:

Thanks for listening to this week's episode of China Insider. If you enjoy the show, please share with your friends and colleagues. And for our Chinese language audience, be sure to come back and check out our monthly Chinese language episodes, which are released on the same channel as well as the Hudson Institute YouTube channel. For more research and analysis from the China Center, be sure to find miles on X and then head on over to where you can read and watch more on these and other pressing issues around the globe. Finally, please review and subscribe wherever you are listening from to help grow the show. From all of us at China Insider, we'll see you next week.