It's the Mid-Autumn Festival long weekend in Asia, a harvest celebration timed to coincide with the full moon at its brightest and fullest. Kids took lanterns out into the street and families shared mooncakes and glimpsed what here in Hong Kong was a massive orange moon when it rose on the day of the celebration, Saturday night.
Markets in Hong Kong and mainland China are closed here on Monday as a result. Trading in South Korea is also paused for the Chuseok or Thanksgiving holiday that occurs with the harvest moon.
While trading may be halted, we have learned that Chinese President Xi Jinping will be preparing for a busier post-holiday schedule. The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed on Monday that Xi will attend a gathering of central Asian leaders in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, making state visits to both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan from Sept. 14-16.
It will be Xi's first trip outside China's borders since the pandemic began. He is due not only to meet Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev but also Russian President Vladimir Putin.
All eyes will be on the Xi-Putin meeting as tensions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China's war games surrounding Taiwan seethe in the background. Xi and Putin last met in Beijing in February, at the Winter Olympics, when they issued a joint statement that "Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no 'forbidden' areas of cooperation."
Days after that Feb. 4 pact, Russia invaded Ukraine. China has steadfastly refused to criticize the invasion - or even call it an invasion - and the two nations have conducted war games together since Russian troops first crossed the Ukrainian border on Feb. 24. While China has resisted selling weapons to Russia since the invasion, it remains a major customer for Russian oil and energy and a vital trading partner at a time Russia faces sanctions from the West.
Xi's last trip outside China came in January 2020, when he made an official visit to Myanmar, just before China closed its borders and declared a national health emergency over the coronavirus. Xi did make a whistle-stop visit to Hong Kong, now a Chinese territory, on June 30 to mark the 25th anniversary of its handover to China from Britain.
It's hard to believe the leader of the world's second-largest economy and most-populous nation has been in self-imposed exile for 970 days, the better part of three years. Although China is still contending with lockdowns that have hit one-fifth of its population, Xi clearly believes it's time to become an international statesman once again.
It was on a state visit to Kazakhstan in 2013 that Xi announced the formulation of the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi at first dubbed it the "Silk Road Economic Belt," stretching from China along the kinds of trade routes familiar to Marco Polo when he first embarked on his journey to China through central Asia in 1271.
The "Stans," all former Soviet republics, form an important buffer and waystation between China, Russia and the West. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are both important sources of uranium as well as natural gas and other vital commodities such as copper and zinc.
The trip comes a month before Xi will face re-election, sure to be rubber-stamped at the once-in-five-years political gathering due to start on Oct. 16. But a faltering economy and stop-start re-emergence from Covid has cast unexpected doubt on the process, forcing Xi to spend more time rallying support for his leadership behind the scenes. He clearly feels the need to demonstrate that he is an international statesman again.
There will be a reshuffling of China's cabinet at the same time that Xi seeks an unprecedented third term, something he has changed the constitution to allow. The meeting, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, will likely see Xi re-elected as general secretary of the party. But he is also likely to be bestowed with the designation of "People's Leader," or chairman of the Communist Party, just like the man he has sought so much to emulate, Mao Zedong.
Xi has been stressing the need for stability in China's foreign policy in justifying his reign. Critics contend that the "Emperor for Life" does not have any checks or balances on his power, with most Communist Party officials terrified of his presence, leaving him mostly listening to an echo chamber repeating his views back to him.
Xi will travel to Samarkand to attend a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group founded by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan have since joined.
Russian President Putin actually broke the news of Xi's plans, announcing last week that he would meet with Xi in Samarkand.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has also indicated that both Xi and Putin will attend the G20 Summit in Bali when that happens Nov. 15-16.
It will be fascinating to watch this fall's round of diplomacy and the declarations made coming out of Xi's trips. The alliance with Russia is both important but fraught with difficulty. A weakened Russia if it does not achieve victory in Ukraine would leave China tied to a less-desirable partner. China, however, is likely to tread very carefully in the kind of overt support that it is willing to extend.