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China’s Xi Jinping highlights Europe’s divisions ahead of expected Putin visit

Hong Kong CNN —

Xi Jinping may have started his recent European trip by fielding tough questions in France about trade and Russia’s war in Ukraine, but the Chinese leader ended the sojourn late last week by projecting a stark message: that despite frictions with much of the continent, China still has fans in some European capitals.

Beijing’s pulling power was on show in Belgrade and Budapest, where streets were festooned with Chinese flags. As Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan touched down at both cities’ airports, folk dancers performed on the tarmac and, in contrast to the subdued welcome the couple received in Paris, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban were on hand to greet them.

Chinese state media played up the warm diplomacy, with headlines proclaiming China’s “ironclad” bond with Serbia and “golden friendship” with Hungary. Both countries, major recipients of Chinese investment, announced upgrades of their relations with China during the visits – a symbolic win for Xi that analysts say could play a role softening European policy on China in fraught areas such as trade, security and human rights.

But in the rest of Europe, the red-carpet welcome afforded Xi by Vucic and Orban – both widely seen as illiberal and Russia-friendly – may not play as well, analysts say, and emphasizes the shrinking number of European capitals where Xi would meet such a warm embrace.

China-Europe relations have been frayed by the European Union’s growing list of economic grievances with China, which could yet spiral into a full-blown trade war. Also in the mix are suspicions across Europe about Beijing’s global ambitions and influence, especially over its support for Russia – including allegations it