In a political comeback for the ages, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is Brazilian president once again. Just three years ago, the 77 year-old was serving prison time after a conviction for corruption. Now he’s back at the helm of Latin America’s largest economy.
The triumphant return gives Lula a third term in office just days after Xi Jinping himself notched three consecutive terms as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (Lula battled a rival candidate, of course, the outspoken Jair Bolsonaro).
Lula’s experience as president is why his win has been welcomed in the Chinese media, with talk of how he met China’s former president Hu Jintao on eight occasions, as well as becoming a key ally in efforts to forge the BRICS group of emerging nations as a geopolitical counterweight to Western nations. Lula was also the man in charge in 2009 when China took over from the United States as Brazil’s leading trading partner.
All of that made him China’s preferred option in the presidential race, especially as Beijing’s relationship with Brazil had cooled markedly since Bolsonaro became president in 2019. He had taken a populist line when he first ran for office, speaking admiringly of Donald Trump and slamming the Chinese as economic predators. Later he would ratchet up the rhetoric over Covid, speculating that the Chinese might have created the virus as part of a strategy to dominate the global economy.
Contrast that with an interview that Lula gave to Chinese media last year praising Beijing’s Covid-19 prevention and quarantine policies.
“The reason that China was able to fight the coronavirus so fast is that it has a strong political party and a strong government, and the government has the right to control and command,” he commended.
Lula’s win in Brazil follows victories for other left-wing candidates in Latin American elections, which has been portrayed in some quarters as a wider backlash against US influence.
But classing his return as a radical repudiation of the Bolsanaro era isn’t quite that straightforward. For a start, his predecessor had backtracked on many of his more outlandish statements on the relationship with China, recognising that Brazil needs Chinese trade and investment for its economy to flourish. Trade between China and Brazil reached a record $135 billion last year, with four consecutive years of growth, despite Bolsanaro’s firebrand style and the Covid-19 pandemic. Investment from Chinese companies in Brazil more than tripled last year as well (to $5.9 billion), making it the lead destination for capital coming out of China, according to the Brazil-China Business Council.
Lula campaigned on a foreign policy that calls for a strengthening of the BRICS alliance and support for “a new global order committed to multilateralism”. Both will appeal to Beijing in political terms, implying an erosion of American power. Yet Lula wasn’t completely averse to playing the anti-Chinese card in campaigning either, telling a crowd of industrial bosses that China was already “occupying” and “dominating” Brazil.
He returns to power in a very different situation to the 2000s as well, when he drew closer to the Chinese as part of efforts to reduce Brazilian dependence on the US, says Jacob Mardell, a research fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, in an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post.
Back then the US was much more focused on the Middle East, seeing China as more of an economic partner than the geopolitical adversary that it has now become.
That made it easier for Lula to strike up good relations with both countries, something that will be harder to achieve in the current climate.
The terms of Lula’s renewed relationship with China will need to be different too. “Back then he considered China and Brazil on a more or less equal footing, but now it’s clear that Brazil and China are in different leagues. With China emerging as a superpower, Lula has just as much reason to be wary of dependence on China,” Mardell reckons.
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