Beijing's General Adaptation Syndrome
As the world's blinding spotlight shines brighter on China's role as a rising power, Beijing's initial "freeze" over Ukraine has given way to a pro-active "flight" and "fight" responses.
( AP | Kremlin )
The first month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was for China the geopolitical equivalent of a fever dream: The "brain-dead" NATO has come back to life like Frankenstein's monster, with even Finland and Sweden expected to join in the coming months; another "sleeping giant" has awoken when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a startling shift in Germany's defense policy; Meanwhile, Beijing's aspirations for greater "strategic autonomy" for the EU were shattered by a Strategic Compass, the European Council's ambitious plan that underlines collaboration with NATO and partnerships with "like-minded countries" across the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, the frail Western sanctions of the past have mutated and grown sharp fangs, with the new "coalition of the willing" wreaking havoc on the Russian economy and turning the country into an international pariah.
The boogeyman is only haunting Russia at the moment, but despite its self-proclaimed neutral position in the conflict, China is also feeling the heat. "China is already on the wrong side of history when it comes to Ukraine," US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, condemning Beijing for failing to speak out against Russian aggression." On a March 23 press conference, NATO Secretary-General addressed China’s political support to Russia, calling out its pro-Kremlin propaganda of “blatant lies and disinformation” and undermining Europe’s sovereignty. On Wednesday, UK Secretary of State Liz Truss lumped China with Russia and Xi with Putin, in a strongly worded address about Ukraine, stressing the trans-Atlantic tour de force, saying China's "rise isn't inevitable," and adding insult to injury by backing Taiwan.
What Beijing perceives as attacks by the US-led West and NATO is not limited to the political front. In economic terms, Chinese scholars and other diplomats interpreted Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan's threat of "absolute consequences" as a "clear form of coercion" and a “cowardly threat”. One Chinese economist commented that "if the West catches even a whiff of success in its sanctions, this tool will definitely be employed to threaten other countries in the future." In another olfactory commentary, veteran Hong Kong pundit He Liangliang claimed that China's wealthy, such as Li Ka-shing, have begun to “smell danger” in the UK's seizure of Russian oligarchs’ funds and assets, implying that it could be them in a future conflict involving China and the West.
A third front is a struggle for public opinion or this newsletter's eponymous "discourse power" as it is known among Chinese leaders. In nationalist Chinese quarters, Western “discourse hegemony” toward China was epitomized in Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang's first talk show appearance on March 20, when CBS' Margaret Brennan fiercely probed him on China's prevaricating posture and allegedly interrupted him 23 times. Nankai University US scholar Huang Haitao pointed at Western governments, think tanks, and media of engaging in "information warfare," writing that the West is exploiting the "special military operation to form a discourse trap to encircle China." Concurrently, the CCP tabloid has been sharing articles on the fledgling Great Translation Movement, warning of a Western-orchestrated anti-China online campaign that aims to provoke a "color revolution" to topple the Chinese government.
The ever-increasing strains in Sino-American relations under Xi's “striving for achievement” (read: assertive) foreign policy over the last decade have put ideology back on the menu. A Zoom meeting on March 23 with Matt Pottinger and H.R. McMaster, both of whom played key roles in developing the Trump administration's China policy, could explain why China interprets Biden's recent remarks on a "battle between democracy and autocracy" as aimed squarely at it. The ex-officials described the unfolding crisis in Ukraine as “a new Cold War” and a possible “existential threat” to America, with the former saying that "it is time for us to be really tough on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)." These notions of “shifting the balance to the free world” to counter Xi Jinping’s long game, underscore the increasingly ideological and securitized language of both sides of the rivalry over the last few years.
In his first speech to Congress, Biden said, “we're in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century.” His following line, "we're at a great inflection point in history," mirrored the zeitgeist phrase of his Chinese peer, president Xi Jinping, "the world is undergoing great changes unseen in a century," a phrase countless Chinese exegeses in policy circles read as "the rise of the East and decline of the West." In a pessimistic assessment of the war’s global repercussions, Zhao Long of the state-backed Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) predicted that it would aggravate global clashes of ideologies and values and bloc confrontations.
On the security front, the Taiwanese leadership was quick to refute the analogy that "today's Ukraine is tomorrow's Taiwan," but the idea had surely occupied the thoughts of Chinese and American officials. The Xi-Biden, Sullivan-Yang, and Wang-Blinken talks all centered on the One-China Principle/Policy, just as ex-US officials and generals flocked to the democratic island to express their support against Beijing's aggression. After the Xi-Biden call on March 19, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng criticized the West and NATO for "weaponizing globalization" and using Ukraine as a "pawn" for their proxy wars, concluding that "the Indo-Pacific Strategy is as dangerous as NATO's eastward expansion in Europe, and if left to its own devices, it will have inconceivable repercussions, eventually pushing the Asia-Pacific into a funeral pyre."
In other words, China arguably senses it is under attack politically, economically, ideologically, and militarily by the US-led West. And, like any living being - from a tiny organism to a titan organization - China reacts in three distinct ways to the threat: freeze, flight, and fight.
Seven – that is the number of times Chinese spokesperson Wang Wenbin was forced to repeat the mantra "consistent and clear" and its variants the morning following the invasion on February 24, in response to correspondents’ grilling over the PRC's official position on Ukraine. Wang’s trainwreck of a press conference could explain why his senior, Hua Chunying, donned her old spokeswoman hat again, facetiously excusing that she "just missed you [the foreign correspondents] so much."
But as the days went by, China's attitude was only consistent in its inconsistencies and clear in its ambivalence. There were no headlines about Russian aggression in party-state media on the week of the invasion, and leaked censorship directives from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) suggested how Chinese content moderators were working overtime to make sense of the rapidly unfolding situation. When 141 countries voted to denounce Russia's aggression in the UN General Assembly, China abstained, as it did again in the UN Security Council, but it voted in favor of Moscow before the World Court and backed it once more protesting its expulsion from the G20.
Beijing's hodgepodge "pro-Russian neutrality" took more than two weeks to use the word "war," and it still refuses to label the invasion as such, preferring the Kremlin euphemism "special military operation." Instead, it issues insipid remarks in high consensus - not unlike Beijing’s messaging on other international hotspots - such as upholding the UN core position, focusing on humanitarian aid, and calling on "all sides" to end hostilities while resolving "all parties’" legitimate security concerns.
The “freeze” aspect of its response was only natural, given China’s need to balance mutually exclusive interests: For one thing, despite all the bluster, the PRC's strategic entente with Russia pales in comparison to the strategic importance it places on healthy economic ties with the US and the EU; for another, China's long-held principles of inviolable sovereignty, non-interference, and territorial integrity have been mercilessly defenestrated by its Comprehensive Strategic Partner of Coordination for a New Era. Furthermore, as a country that is frequently targeted by unilateral sanctions imposed by the West, China is primarily opposed to them, yet all of Beijing's fulminations fall flat in the face of Moscow's unilateral invasion of a sovereign country.
But as the damning evidence against Russia is piling up, so does the pressure from the developed world and NATO; or, as says the Talmud, an old Jewish classic revered by President Xi, "silence is assent."
For weeks prior to the invasion, foreign missions had been urging their citizens to flee Ukraine. The Chinese embassy, on the other hand, downplayed the warnings, and it was not until the sounds of explosions and gunshots forced ambassador Fan Xianrong to seek refuge in a basement that the PRC opted to evacuate approximately 6000 of its nationals.
This initial unresponsiveness is frequently contrasted by Western media with President Vladimir Putin's cordial visit to the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February, raising the question of how much President Xi knew about his "best friend's" plans over Ukraine. Back then, the two leaders issued a Joint Statement calling for a "New Era" in international relations, by rejecting the US-led Western order, condemning NATO and reimagining global concepts of human rights, sovereignty, and democracy. Notably, the statement also pronounced that the “friendship between the two states has no ceiling,” with “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
When taken in this perspective, de Cervantes' "you shall know the person by his company" takes a twisted turn. Indeed, renowned Chinese experts cautioned that the brutal conflict in Ukraine "may be detrimental to China's global image," and that the "US-led Western public opinion will be more aggressive in pushing the perception of 'China and Russia are one family."
One US official was quoted as saying that the US intends to "make Beijing feel pain over Russia's invasion of Ukraine,” an idea elaborated by Pottinger: "the way to break the dictator-to-dictator entente of Putin and Xi is to lash them ever tighter together, so they have to live like Siamese twins with each other's mistakes and miscalculations, and then they'll be begging for surgery to freaking rip them apart.”
Many in China are against the war, with Chinese intellectuals and professors branding Putin a "war-mongering madman" in petitions, letters, articles, and poems. But official statements made clear two weeks into the conflict that China will not condemn the Russian Federation and, a fortiori, break off their “rock solid” bilateral ties.
Conversely, Western pressure “to rope in China with Russia,” made China’s “flight” response kick in. It started by distancing itself from Russia through official clarifications that China has no alliance with Russia, with the PRC ambassador to the US later qualifying that their bilateral cooperation may not have a ceiling, but it does have a ground floor. On March 18, President Xi told President Biden that the situation in Ukraine "was not something we wanted to see."
Nonetheless, the collapse of the giant northern neighbor's economy may also fall into the same category as "not something we want to see," not to say an ignominious downfall for comrade Putin. While it maintains its distance, “China should provide covert help to Russia without becoming unduly reliant on Moscow,” Beijing intellectuals have argued, adding that “our unspoken backing for Putin will keep Russia and the US in a state of confrontation and stalemate, depleting each other's resources.” Consequently, compliance with Western sanctions by Chinese state-owned banks and firms, on the one hand, could be offset through indirect support on the other.
In yet another "flight" response, China opted for a third way, the Chinese Way. China's UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, told the UN General Assembly Special Emergency Session on Ukraine on March 25, that "there cannot be only two options, namely the use of force and sanctions." China portrays itself as a “fair and just” mediator that employs “Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions,” such as President Xi’s vapid Global Security Initiative unveiled at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum last week. To support its position, it went in late March on a diplomatic blitz in Global South countries, with high-profile interactions in Africa, the Gulf, India, and Southeast Asia.
In reality, Chinese wisdom has done very little to alleviate the Ukrainian people's misery. China's $2.4 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine in March, from a $15 trillion USD economy, was less than one-fifteenth of the sum raised by Hollywood stars Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. What’s more, Chinese diplomats have criticized Western arms shipments to Ukraine, a move described by Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, as "very unserious and unworthy of the stature of a respectable power." "We don't need blankets and beds," she wrote in a Zelenskyy-esque response to China's lackluster offers, "we need weapons to defend our lands!"
Beijing's pro-Russian neutrality, particularly its refusal to use the phrase "invasion," betrays Chinese long-declared principles on the sanctity of sovereignty and non-belligerence and throws into question their future role is a responsible major power. This has made Beijing an easier target for its critics, and the more cornered it feels, the more incentive it has to deflect the attacks and go on the offensive.
"NATO owes the Chinese people a debt of blood!" exclaimed the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying in response to a question about China's official position on the Russian invasion and violation of the UN charter. She was referring to NATO's 1999 deadly bombardment of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (for which the organization quickly and empathetically apologized), most likely capitalizing on the prevalent view among mainland Chinese that the shelling was deliberate. Xu Bu, President of the state-backed China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), built on this official narrative, to argue that the US-led West and NATO are "riddled with atrocities" and "suffering from selective amnesia about their murderous past."
Amid an onslaught of "information-cognitive warfare" by the West, Chinese diplomats, as well as the entire propaganda apparatus, mobilized to launch their own information operation. Instead of addressing Russia's flagrant attacks on civilians, spokeswoman Wang Wenbin expounded on a dozen areas throughout history that have been victims of US and NATO aggression. One Chinese researcher, writing for Party media, went even further, tracing back US and NATO aggression to the discovery of the New World by Columbus in 1492.
The prevalent use of “whataboutisms” appears minor in comparison to the outright attacks on the US and NATO. On March 10, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua published an article titled "America, an empire of lies," evoking similar charges by President Putin against the West. "Fixed on maintaining its hegemony, the US is a scourge for international peace and global stability," runs one headline in a series of editorials that had been published every workday since the Xi-Biden meeting on March 18 by the Chinese military's mouthpiece.
Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, began a series of editorials on March 29, titled “The U.S. Bears Unshirkable Responsibility for the Crisis,” blaming it for “committing the original sin" and implying that Moscow was forced to fend for itself. The PLA Daily has an ongoing series under the title "The Hypocrisy and Dangers of US Diplomacy in Perspective". Similar messages were conveyed in a nationwide "education campaign" that has been undertaken at all levels, from primary schools to universities, to teach students "how to correctly grasp the Russia-Ukraine issue" and "how to correct one's thinking."
China is emboldened by the fact that most of the Global South have refused to join Western sanctions, with party-state messages implying that “the West” is in the minority compared to "the rest." In addition to “borrowing foreign boats” to relay its talking points, Beijing’s March diplomatic blitz sought to enlist the Global South to the Chinese offensive by reinforcing poor countries' resentment against the West’s imperialist history, amplifying their angst of becoming collateral damage of the sanctions. In certain cases, they put words in the mouths of other countries, such as India, to create the impression of a united anti-Western front.
Leading voices in US policy circles have urged the Biden administration not to allow the Russian "tsunami" to divert America's strategic focus away from the Chinese "climate change". Their Chinese counterparts have made similar suggestions to their country vis-à-vis the US-led West, urging the PRC to seize the opportunities made by the conflict. Huang Jing, a distinguished professor at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), suggested, for instance, that China should exploit the differing and ambivalent voices in the Quad, the diverging interests within the EU, and the partisan lines in the US.
The final and lowest form of attack by the party-state is the rampant use of conspiracies. Popular nationalist platforms like Party tabloid Global Times or private platforms such as billionaire Eric Li's Guancha, as well as celebrated intellectuals like Zhang Weiwei and Jin Canrong, were peddling Kremlin canards on Ukraine long before the crisis erupted, but now they have stepped up their efforts with gusto.
Chen Wenling, one of China's top and most respected economists, told students in early March that the US had sought to expand NATO and provoke a war to “feed its money-making machine”, the military-industrial complex, to cause an energy crisis in Europe and capture their market, to use Ukraine as a pawn to start World War III and to contain Russia and China by laying the groundwork for a global restructuring based on ideological lines. “This is somewhat analogous to the settings in which Hitler launched WWII.”
What’s Changed - and What Hasn’t
Fundamentally, China's position throughout the conflict has not changed. First, to quote neo-Maoist scholars and leftist Chinese media, it recognizes that “the US-imperialist hegemony is the principal contradiction.” This notion is apparent in both domestic and foreign-facing messaging and informs strategic thinking.
Second, maintaining strong relations with Russia was in Beijing's long-term strategic interests well before the invasion began. It will remain so regardless of what the West does, and expecting China to criticize Russia is, as said Ambassador Qin Gang, “naïve”. “America’s focus now is on Russia”, wrote former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, highlighting both points, “but give them enough time and they will refocus on China. And when that day comes, we will thank Russia for being our ally, or at least being neutral.”
Despite of the foregoing, maintaining strong economic relations with the United States and the European Union is in China's long-term interests. Even before the invasion, China already had enough on its plate; with an ambitious 5.5% growth target, the worst COVID spike since 2020, climate change, and demographic pressures, there are reasons to believe President Xi when he says the Ukraine crisis is "not something we wanted to see."
What has alarmingly changed is the shifting emphasis between the “three Fs”: As the horrifying images from Ukraine continued to flow in a livestream of agony, China faced a growing backlash for its initial "freeze", as well as its unprincipled and unjustified “pro-Russian neutrality”. Beijing chooses to believe it is being unfairly hemmed in by the US-led West, which provides it the pretext to shift its weight to "fight" and "flight" measures.
When this is coupled with the escalating rhetoric of Western policymakers, a self-perpetuating cycle of doom is formed, the results of which are already visible. Initially, Chinese diplomats and state-run media were "just asking questions" about US “bio-labs” in Ukraine, echoing an easily debunked Kremlin conspiracy. But since late March party-state media reports that there is an "irrefutable proof" that the US Department of Defense was developing bioweapons and that the COVID pandemic was created in Ukraine by the US; or, as one CCTV news anchor put it, "I propose that from now on, COVID be renamed the US virus!"
Tuvia Gering is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a Krauthammer Fellow, specializing in Chinese security and foreign policy, and emergency and disaster management. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. @GeringTuvia
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