These two images were published side by side on the Chinese social media site Weibo in 2013. Credit: Weibo, Reuters
These two images were published side by side on the Chinese social media site Weibo in 2013. Credit: Weibo, Reuters

It all seemed so cozy when Barack Obama and Xi Jinping met four years ago. Xi had just been appointed leader of China, and their meeting at the Sunnylands ranch in California was presented as a great boost for the personal ties between the two leaders.

The Communist Party-run Global Times explained in remarkably warm words how the “Southern California residents are preparing a warm welcome for presidents of the world’s two largest economies,” and images in global media showed them comfortably strolling about the ranch wearing bright shirts with rolled up sleeves.

The relaxed couple soon became a target for online parody, however. Chinese internet users juxtaposed a Reuters photo of the two presidents walking side by side across a plot of grass with an image of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friend Tigger. The mock-up quickly spread to Western media too.

The Economist pushed it even further. In a now classic  cover for its North American and Asian editions it portrayed Obama and Xi as the two main characters in the movie Brokeback Mountain.

The Economist cover portraying Barack Obama and Xi Jinxing as characters from the movie Brokeback Mountain.

The film is a neo-Western romantic drama directed by Ang Lee that depicts a complex emotional, and sexual, relationship between two men. “He stole his heart – and then his intellectual property” ran one of the fictitious reviews quoted by the magazine.

During the summit, Xi publicly invited Obama to visit China.

When Xi returns to the US to meet Donald Trump this week, he is unlikely to experience the same degree of amicability.

Relations between the two countries have been all but warm since Trump took office. To make things even frostier, Trump has lashed out with Tweets stating that the meeting will be “very difficult” and again accused China of stealing American jobs.

The heart of the conflict appears to be as much about differences in personality as in policy. Reuters said that the “summit should offer a study in contrasts: Trump impatient, outspoken and prone to angry tweet-storms; Xi, outwardly calm and measured, with no known social media presence.”

Chinese diplomats have said that, more than policy clashes, what worries their camp is the risk that an unpredictable Trump might publicly embarrass Xi, after several foreign leaders experienced awkward moments with the new US president. He reportedly cut short a heated phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and refused to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand. This has raised a red flag among the Chinese.

“Xi Jinping does not want to be seen as being bullied or embarrassed by President Trump,” Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, told the Sydney Morning Herald

Bullied? Embarrassed? How far things have come from the days of Winnie-the-Pooh and Brokeback Mountain diplomacy.