China’s Ukraine Problem

March 25, 2022 | 10:08 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

The war in Ukraine may be disrupting Chinese politics. An influential Chinese analyst put it to Chinese Communist Party leaders this way:

“Russia’s ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine has caused great controversy in China, with its supporters and opponents being divided into two implacably opposing sides.”

China’s communist political system doesn’t handle implacable opposition well. If the analyst’s description is accurate, the war in Ukraine could trigger a domestic political crisis in China. The outcome of the war could determine the outcome of that crisis. 

Chinese supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are guiding the responses of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and China’s state-controlled media. Presumably, they include President Xi Jinping. It is unclear who is on the opposing side. Given the opaqueness of China’s political system, and the lack of a free press, trying to guess is pointless. So, let’s look at the opposing argument.

At the heart of it is the contention that Putin’s invasion is “an irreversible mistake.” Even if Russia somehow manages to occupy Ukraine and set up a puppet government, the conflict won’t end, the Russian economy can’t bear the costs and “Russia’s status as a great power would come to an end.” The international position of the United States would be strengthened in a world now embroiled in “a life-and-death battle between those for and against Western democracy.” If Putin’s government falls,

“The power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and US influence in the non-Western world will increase. … The West will possess more “hegemony” both in terms of military power and in terms of values and institutions, its hard and soft power will reach new heights.”

The Official Line

Chinese public commentary on the invasion shows no sign of concern that Russia and Putin have made a mistake or are in danger of failing. Chinese state-media is dominated by images of seemingly competent Russian officials making a compelling case for a “special military operation” that is on schedule. There is scant mention of Russian setbacks on the battlefield, the negative consequences of economic sanctions or international condemnation of the invasion. 

CCTV broadcast an hour-long examination of the war immediately after the Biden-Xi phone call on March 18. Erudite commentators and well-credentialed experts explained how Europe would splinter over disagreements about the war, the costs of supporting refugees and dependence on Russian natural gas. They implied food shortages created by the war would increase antipathy towards the United States and NATO in developing nations. And they closed with a discussion of the “conspiratorial” Western use of disinformation, led by US officials who “admitted” they were engaged in an information war with Russia.

Hours before the phone call, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded to questions about the apparent lack of Chinese concern for civilian casualties in Ukraine by rattling off statistics on the number of civilians killed by US and NATO strikes in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other nations during the past twenty years.  He added that China was sending food, sleeping bags and baby formula to Ukraine while the US and NATO were sending arms that would intensify and prolong the war.

Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, argued China’s decision to withhold condemnation and preserve friendly relations with Russia is “an asset in the international effort to solve the crisis in a peaceful way.” Another influential Chinese analyst argued the war offers China an opportunity “to play a constructive role in the development of a new international order.” He told Chinese Communist Party leaders there were dangerous uncertainties.

“But one thing is very clear: the reason why a great power is a great power, or why it is considered a great power, does not lie in its ability to challenge the old order, let alone its ability to conduct war, but in its responsibility and ability to advance and maintain international peace.”

The “implacable” opponents of this emerging official line, whoever they are, believe, China should “avoid playing both sides” and “choose the mainstream position in the world.” They argue a Chinese decision to support Ukraine and actively confront Putin could end the war or at least keep it from escalating. The influential analyst speaking for the critics of China’s present course of action closed the opposition’s case by warning Chinese leaders, “A just cause attracts a lot of support; an unjust one finds little.”

A Pivotal Moment

The last time China’s communist elite appeared to be this divided over a crisis was in the spring of 1989. Their inability to resolve internal differences on how to respond to nationwide protests ended in a massacre and international condemnation. But the crisis also led to the adoption of power sharing arrangements intended to help manage disagreements, including term limits for senior leaders. Xi Jinping abolished those limits. If there is a serious dispute about his response to the war in Ukraine, it could, because of the absence of an agreed upon mechanism for power sharing and political succession, precipitate another domestic political crisis in China. 

The dividing lines over the war in Ukraine are reminiscent of those that split the party in 1989. Cadres who favor greater integration with the West and less state control over individual and corporate behavior are aligned against cadres who feel too much contact with Western political and economic elites could undermine Chinese communism. These officials see increased state control over Chinese intellectual, economic, and social life as a form of protection from Western corruption and “bourgeoise liberalization.” Both factions seek to uphold the rule of the Chinese Communist Party at home and safeguard China’s national interests abroad.

Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine, and Xi’s apparent admiration for the man and his methods, could become serious liabilities for China’s strongman if Russia loses the war or Putin loses his job. Dissatisfaction with many of Xi’s decisions, especially his zero-Covid policy, could get a wider hearing if Xi’s reputation is tarnished by his association with Putin’s colossal economic and geopolitical failures. 

There is no reliable way to assess the probability the war will lead to a change in China’s leadership, especially based on one essay. But concerned observers may want to examine the assertion that Xi’s response to the situation in Ukraine has generated controversy between “implacably opposing sides” of China’s communist elite. It would not be the first time in the history of Chinese communism a single spark started a prairie fire.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.