What will China do? The question has become something of a mantra ever since the Russian invasion began, and has gradually picked up volume as Russian bombings have hit civilians and as American pressure – pushing Beijing to take a clear position – has begun to instill doubts about whether China might support Russia economically and militarily (which has not happened so far, with China repeatedly saying that it has not received any request for armaments from Moscow).
In reality, if we read between the lines, Beijing has given plenty of hints that Putin’s adventure may turn into a disaster: there is no rational reason for the CCP to support such an initiative that, more than anything else, is leading to disorder and unpredictability, which is what China fears the most.
For the Chinese Communist Party and its hybrid modus operandi, between Leninism and Confucianism (at least on paper), the most important thing is order, both domestic and international, a fundamental condition for “good governance,” for “harmony,” stability, and, above all, so that business can proceed smoothly. War is the ultimate stage of disorder, chaos, an inability to continue as before. A war undermines the perception of security—while it should be noted that for Chinese Communist Party officials, “the security of China” is synonymous with “the security of the CCP.”
On the other hand, Xi Jinping himself, in his two-hour dialogue with Biden on Friday, stressed that the war, the sanctions and the return of Covid (which on Sunday claimed its first two victims in China in over a year, and set the country back two years with the closures of cities, factories and logistics hubs, with everything this will entail for the global supply chain) are very serious concerns for the leadership in Beijing. Similarly, the signals that have come from the economic front show that China is complying with the sanctions, however critical of them, and does not seem intent on changing its attitude.
All the more so because Beijing cannot sacrifice trade with the EU and the US and become isolated in order to support an economic partner of smaller proportions such as Russia, especially at a time when its economy is slowing down (the growth estimate, at 5.5%, is the lowest in 30 years), which has resulted in some reforms – on pensions and house taxes – being put aside for the moment.
So, why doesn’t China definitively disavow Putin and his war in Ukraine? There are many reasons having to do with expediency, including the fact that it was China’s number one, Xi Jinping, who invested so much in the relationship with Moscow in the first place. To call Putin a rogue or a criminal would be the same as saying that the Chinese leader, who is about to be named for a historic third term in office (in October, at the 20th Congress), has completely miscalculated. Xi Jinping, and his coterie of officials at the topmost levels of power together with him, would lose face, both internationally and domestically. Presumably, this would to cause Xi actual problems, but the goings-on of the internal clashes within the CCP are unpredictable, as well as almost always inscrutable.
China, from our Western point of view, is a land of contradictions (after all, its model is called by the Chinese “market socialism”), to which we must add yet another one at this historical moment: namely, “standing with Russia without standing with Russia.” In the West, we expect a clear answer, as per our preference, in one direction or the other; this won’t happen, at least for now, because China proceeds gradually, waits for the right moment to “discover itself,” fears the unpredictability of events and focuses on being ready for new scenarios. The possibility that Beijing could be a mediator is not on the table at this point.
As Giulia Sciorati, an analyst of Asian geopolitics at the University of Trento, explained to il manifesto after Friday’s virtual meeting between Biden and Xi: “As expected by a number of observers, there were no great steps forward in the videoconference between Biden and Xi. In fact, the point that was truly highlighted by Beijing regarding the war in Ukraine was China’s commitment to providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of the conflict, an issue on which China has begun to focus its narrative more and more after the criticism – both domestic and international – it has taken in recent weeks for maintaining a rhetoric that is, if not exactly neutral, at least too cautious. One cannot expect anything different from a meeting like this, under the spotlight of the whole world: and it is precisely on this point that one can expect Beijing’s efforts, both practical and narrative, to continue in the immediate future.”
On the alliance – the “strategic partnership,” as they call it in Beijing – with Russia, Zheng Yongnian, a Chinese political scientist, told Die Zeit that “it would be a strategic error to form an alliance with Russia. But what is a ‘friendship without borders’? Every relationship between states has boundaries; one should not take it too literally. A ‘friendship,’ unlike an alliance, is difficult to define. Remember that Mao Zedong broke with the Soviet Union in short order in the 1950s. Some now believe that Russia will become China’s vassal state. This will not happen. Russia is Russia, China is China.”
Many Chinese intellectuals have spoken out on this topic in the first days of the war, when the Chinese information ecosystem was taking clearly pro-Russian positions (in the last days, we have observed that, for example, Chinese state TV has been broadcasting images of the bombings against civilians, offering a new narrative of what is happening in Ukraine).
After the popularity of an analysis by Hu Wei, an advisor of the Chinese government who is critical of Putin and whose article was censored but continued to spread on WeChat, others have also expressed similar opinions. For example, Qin Hui, a former professor of history at the prestigious Tsinghua University, wrote that “We should note that while Putin condemns Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he does not say a word about Tsarist Russia’s oppression of ethnic groups or imperial expansion, and between the lines, he clearly expresses his yearning for the legacy of imperial Russia and his resentment of the Bolsheviks for destroying it. Back in the day, when Mao Zedong, in an anti-Soviet moment, famously labeled the CPSU a ‘new Tsar,’ this was perhaps not entirely appropriate, at least from an ideological point of view, but ‘emperor Putin’ can’t wait to wear this crown.” (Qin’s article has been translated from readingthechinesedream.com).
So what is the “pace” of Chinese evolution on the subject? At this point, one should remember the first statements of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, made in Munich before the invasion, when he stressed that the territorial inviolability of Ukraine was considered sacrosanct by Beijing.
However, the Chinese positions most likely cannot be understood without considering the relationship with the United States and the latest phone call between Xi and Biden. In this regard, ISPI analyst Filippo Fasulo explained to il manifesto that “both China and the US see the conflict in the light of the competition between great powers and damage to the bilateral relationship. Beijing is insisting on the humanitarian dimension because it feels the reputational risk of being associated with Russia’s violence. This should limit the possibility of military support for Russia. Beijing has noted the US media pressure and tried to ‘strike back’ by issuing statements while the meeting was still in progress and issuing a press statement shortly afterwards. We will see the effects in the coming days, just as this meeting itself took place in the aftermath of the one in Rome, but the indications to the lower tiers of negotiators to focus on being more operational in the following phases suggests that common ground has been found.”
Giulia Sciorati concurs: “While Beijing and Washington have found a common point in the willingness to facilitate a negotiated solution to the conflict in Ukraine, the differences in their approach to the international system remain many, as recalled by the same leaders in the official post-videoconference communiqué. A positive sign can be noted in the fact that both sides stressed that they wanted to extricate themselves from the ‘cold war mentality’ that began, in practical terms, with the trade war under the Trump presidency. However, as was the case with the Shanghai Communiqué 50 years ago, there is still a lot of diplomatic work to be done before a normalization of bilateral relations can be achieved.”
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