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China Hedges its Bets on Ukraine Crisis, Turns Unrest into CCP Propaganda

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Dec. 2013

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Dec. 2013

As events unfold quickly in Ukraine, Russia’s increasingly close ally China is hedging its bets on an uncertain outcome. China has been quick to condemn U.S. and European involvement in Ukraine’s affairs, but has withheld judgment either for or against its ally Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propagandists have made use of the unrest in Ukraine to serve as a warning for Chinese citizens of the dangers of rapid political change.

In official state-run media the Chinese government has accused the West of maintaining a “Cold War mentality” against Russia in the contest for influence in Ukraine and of “meddling” in Ukraine’s affairs by manipulating popular opinion against Russia to favor Western interests. Before the fall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, China said that the West “frequently interferes in [Ukraine’s] internal affairs by instigating the opposition party to challenge the incumbent government,” and warned that China must resist Western influence to avoid the “torment” and “turbulence” countries such as Ukraine have experienced.

Since the fall of Yanukovych and the onset of hostilities with Russia, China has assumed a measured tone toward Russian moves while continuing to criticize the West and to use the unrest in Ukraine as a warning for domestic Chinese audiences. “China is deeply concerned with the current Ukraine situation,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on March 2, urging a “political solution” and adding that “there have been reasons for today’s situation in Ukraine” without detailing what those reasons might be.

The CCP, as China-based writer Adam Minter observes, “views unrest anywhere in the world as a teaching moment for those who might clamor for more rapid reforms in China.” To begin with, China is one of the few countries in the world whose leaders still openly mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Soviet empire. While Western audiences cheered the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chinese leaders must have wept and quaked with fear at the prospects for their own future hold on power (In statements that must have deeply endeared him to Chinese leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also called the collapse of the USSR a “genuine tragedy” and “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century). “With its disintegration,” according to China, “the USSR that could once help resolve the contradiction between east and west Ukraine will help no more.”

State-run media in China abound with pro-CCP explanations on the crisis in Ukraine and how China can avoid similar problems (in Chinese): CCP theoretical magazine Seeking Truth (Qiushi)  identified voting as “the root of the problem,” because voting allows ethnic differences, religious differences, and differences of opinion among people to get in the way of national unity. As long as China has a one-party dictatorship, says the CCP, Chinese people never need worry about any such differences getting in the way of Chinese national unity. Qiushi’s list of things for Chinese people to fear and avoid also included  “failure of democratic governance” leading to “social unrest” and “chaos”; and “velvet revolutions” incited by the United States based on its “need to dominate the world.”

China and Russia have been described as a “new axis of autocracy,” jointly pursuing a common interest in preserving anti-Western authoritarian rule by “exporting repression” and collaborating in a mutual support network with anti-Western autocrats throughout the world. For China this effort includes promoting the “China model” of authoritarian state capitalism over the “Washington consensus” of free markets and liberal democracy, promoting national sovereignty over international law on human rights issues, assisting struggling autocracies in methods of crowd control and legal repression, and exporting internet censorship technology. For Russia this effort has mainly focused on backing pro-Russian autocrats like Viktor Yanukovych and cultivating grassroots pro-Russian support in former Soviet satellite states (the latter includes granting easy Russian citizenship to Russian speakers in former satellite states so as to have a ready population of Russian citizens to “protect” through military intervention). If anyone is guilty of harboring a “Cold War mentality,” it is not America and the West but China and Russia.

China’s autocrats are surely hoping for a Russian victory over pro-Western forces in Ukraine. No one likes to be caught rooting for a loser, however, and China has economic interests in Ukraine that will be important for China in any event. For the present, therefore, China’s autocrats are hedging their bets, and warning their own citizens against any similar turn of events in China.

Image credit: Xinhua.



Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades