The Russia-Ukraine War also Divides China
by Dr. Man Zhang, Research Institute Social Cohesion (FGZ)/ ReCentGlobe, Leipzig University –
The Russia-Ukraine war has shocked the world, not only because of the war itself, but also because of those who have supported and cheered for it. Some societies united to stand alongside Ukraine, while others are divided by differing views on the war, and previously latent divisions have now come to the surface. China falls into the latter category, where public opinions about the war have become polarized. Millions of people have taken part in the debate on the social media site Weibo. To such an extent that someone even coined a new phrase, wu xin gong zuo (乌心工作), to describe a state of not being able to focus on work because of excessive concern about the war. However, the Chinese government remains ambiguous about its position at the time of this writing. This has drawn international criticism that has been widely discussed in China as well. Morally, the invasion is wrong, and there is nothing to dispute. But moral judgment alone is not enough to understand this tragic war, nor is it possible to understand why it has generated two contrasting perceptions in China. Thus, this short article explains how the Chinese public perceives the war between Russia and Ukraine and analyzes the underlying reasons why the Chinese government remains ambiguous about its position to today. It also seeks to get a glimpse of the possible impacts of China’s stance on the global geopolitics and world order.
Divided Responses to the War
How does the Chinese public view the Russia-Ukraine war? An analogy proposed by a “netizen” in China may give us a quick understanding of the focus of the debate among the Chinese public. The Russia-Ukraine war is compared to a chess game: The pawn is Ukraine, the chessboard is the EU and NATO, while the United States and Russia are the real players in the game. Thus, public discussions in China mainly focus the role of the United States in the war, the relationship between China and Russia, and the relations between China and western countries. This perception of an either/or dichotomy has been reinforced by the propagandistic discourse on the deterioration of US-China relations in recent years and, in the long run, is likely to feed xenophobic and hostile tendencies in China, the consequences of which can already be seen below.
Public discussion of the war in China is divided into two main opposing views: condemn the war and criticize Putin; support Putin and criticize the US. The former denounces the latter for advocating the military and lacking humanitarianism; the latter accuses the former of supporting the United States and being corrupted by liberal ideas. The majority, of course, remain silent or at least refrain from expressing their views in public spheres. It should also be noted that these public discussions are highly dispersed and not clearly delineated, and many of the views are not mutually exclusive. For example, many of those who support Putin do not support the act of waging war. Likewise, those who oppose the war are not necessarily against Putin. But for convenience, the two main views are referred to below simply as the anti-war and pro-war groups.
When the war first began, anti-war was the dominant response. The anti-war group believes that all wars are unjust. Russia’s war against Ukraine undermines peace and stability and runs counter to humanitarianism. People of Ukraine should not be subjected to war because of political conflicts. Many intellectuals and university scholars have openly stated their anti-war stance. For example, five professors jointly issued a public statement condemning the war, which was quickly censored and removed.(Censorship has been in place but not consistent.) At the same time, they were shocked, even frustrated, by the number of people who support the war. Some have claimed, through surveys conducted online or in reality, that those who support the war or Putin are generally undereducated or living in poor conditions. Some also see those in favor of the war as anti-intellectual and populist.
However, Chinese scholars are also divided. Some argue that the Russia-Ukraine war resulted from US abetting. For example, Zhang Weiwei, a Chinese political scientist and a professor of international relations at Fudan University, describes that the United States play the role of “igniting the fire and fanning the flames (shanfengdianhuo)” in the war. Zhang claims that the US have at least three intentions for doing so. Firstly, the Biden government hopes to divert the attention of the American public from its tedious administration; Secondly, to intensify tensions within Europe and to promote the flow of capital to the US. Thirdly, the consistent goal in the medium and long term is to divide Europe, to cut off Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and turn to the US, and ultimately to make Europe only follow the lead of the US. Prof. Zhang does not express his own stance about the war, but many pro-war people share his opinions.
The pro-war group has provided several reasons to back up their stance. First, they defended that if Ukraine joins NATO, then the U.S. can place military weapons on Russia’s doorstep. In this case, Putin simply fights back and safeguards the security of his country. Second, they argue that the United States has continuously instigated Ukraine to challenge Russia’s security and then abandoned it after the war began. They criticized Western countries and media for turning a blind eye to U.S. actions, i.e., adding fuel to the war fire, and instead focusing merely on the actions of Russia, or even China which has remained out of this situation. Moreover, they criticize the Ukrainian government as a puppet of the US and mainly controlled by neo-Nazi groups. Many people are almost inherently terrified of and critical of anything Nazi-related. Thus, they even suggest that those Ukrainian people who elected such a government have to bear the consequences of it.
The pro-war group seems to be gradually dominating the debate, or at least, becoming more vocal in the online discussion. This may be a result of official control of public opinions. The state and social media platforms have been censoring some of the content that condemns Russian invasion, although this has been inconsistent. As academic studies of a Hong Kong scholar show, only 1% of users actively post on social media platforms. In the current situation, those actively pro-Putin may be seeing their comments as more in line with the official narrative. Furthermore, the lauder voices of the pro-war group also stem in part from the rise of nationalism in recent China. In the history of the CCP, nationalism has always been its convenient tool. Whenever the domestic or international situation threatens its rule, the CCP has always waved the banner of nationalism to incite its supporters so as to stabilize the situation. In recent years, nationalist sentiment continues to grow under Xi Jinping’s government. (Whether the CCP will eventually lose control over it and suffer a backlash remains to be further observed and studied.) With the increasingly tight control of public thinking, nationalism has become an outlet for many people to vent their emotions. Some support Ukraine simply because they dislike Russia, while those in favor of Russia are disgusted with the US. Many of them do not understand the conflict and have relied on some news information that is propagandistic in nature.
In addition to nationalist sentiment, there are other reasons for the competing views about the war. For example, both sides have invoked historical memories as the basis for their arguments. The anti-war side argues that many wars have occurred between China and Russia in history and we cannot sit still while Russia is invading another country. Otherwise, China might again face the threat of a powerful Russia in future. The pro-war side, on the other hand, holds that China should not abandon its relationship just because of a historical fragment, but should consider the current international situation China is facing. They argue that only when Russia can still hold Europe and the United States in check, can China have a moment to grow. Both sides revoke historical issues to back up their stances. The war in reality triggers a fragment of their historical memories and shapes their judgment of the current situation.
As mentioned at the beginning, the Chinese government is still walking a tightrope and attempting to remain obfuscated. Understanding China’s domestic decision-making environment is then important for us to anticipate the choices the Chinese government is likely to make. This is arguably a crucial moment, and how China makes its strategic decisions will have profound geopolitical implications for China’s future and for global security and stability. As noted earlier, domestic Chinese public attitudes toward the Russia-Ukraine war are polarized. It is highly unlikely that the Communist Party’s policymaking circles will have a monolithic attitude toward the war either. Does China’s position ultimately depend on Xi Jinping’s personal choice or the CCP’s top decision-making circle? Deepening understanding of the impact of the domestic policymaking environment on the superpower’s security and international policymaking will be critical in future research related to international peace and strategic stability.
On February 4, 2022, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin signed a joint statement, declaring that the bonds between the two countries have “no limits” and the cooperation has “no forbidden areas.” The latest development in Russia-China relations have placed the Chinese government’s position on the war in a dilemma. On the one hand, it seeks to maintain close relations with Russia; on the other hand, it needs to preserve the diplomatic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that it has always advocated. The Chinese government has struggled to strike a balance between its relations with Russia and its commitment to the sanctity of the nation-state.
First, despite the international community’s urging for China to explicitly express its opposition to the war and to impose sanctions on Russia, the Chinese government is still equivocal. This can be observed in the remarks of the Chinese Foreign Minister Mr. Wang Yi on February 25th. On the one hand, he stated that China respects the territorial and sovereign integrity of other countries, arguably implying that Russia cannot annex Ukraine. On the other hand, he also expressed that Russia’s requests should also be heeded and addressed. This refers to the possibility that if NATO were to include Ukraine, then its armaments could expand into Ukraine, which is considered a threat to Russian security. The Chinese government’s statement does not clearly indicate support or opposition. Therefore, at a press conference on March 7, Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that peaceful negotiations are essential to resolve the current crisis and noted China’s willingness to play a mediation role. This implies that Beijing does not want the war to escalate and expand further.
Although the Chinese government pays much attention to the relationship with Russia, its mixed tactics also resulted from another crucial factor: the issue of Taiwan. Since the war began, the Ukrainian situation has been constantly compared to the Taiwan issue. Speculation that China would take the opportunity to invade Taiwan has been rife. Such comparison has also attracted many people’s attention in China. The fact that the Taiwan issue has been brought into discussion also places the Chinese government in a dilemma. As mentioned earlier, some have suspected that the Chinese government might seize the opportunity to take over Taiwan. In the face of such questioning, if the Chinese government were to openly support the Russia-Ukraine war, its international relations would be in crisis. But if the Chinese government were explicitly opposed to the war, it would be indirectly acknowledging the similarity between Taiwan and Ukraine, which implies that the Chinese government recognizes Taiwan as an independent sovereign. This is something that the Chinese Communist government would never agree to.
Furthermore, the U.S. sent a delegation of former top security and defense officials to Taiwan on March 1 and a warship sailed in the sensitive Taiwan Strait. On the contrary, the joint statement on February 4 between China and Russia states that the Russian government “recognizes Taiwan as an inseparable part of China’s territory and opposes any form of ‘Taiwan independence’.” All these have added to the Chinese government’s mixed reactions to the ongoing war. At the March 7 press conference, Wang Yi also highlighted that the situations in Taiwan and Ukraine are fundamentally different, showing that the government attempts to break away from its bind on this issue.
Optimistically, and probably the most ideal option for Beijing, China could become a mediator, as Minister Wang Yi suggested on March 7. But the challenge is whether China can use its relations with Russia to facilitate peace talks, and whether it can fairly balance the demands of both Russia and Ukraine to achieve a satisfactory outcome. The worst-case scenario is a further escalation of the conflict, which may further drive China closer to Russia, and eventually to a Russia-China block. In this case, the war not only divides Chinese society, but also reactivates the Cold War discourse and exacerbates the existing hostility. Global peace and stability may then become a luxury.