As the regime of Vladimir Putin faces the most serious challenge of its 12 years in power, Chinese leaders will be watching apprehensively. Instability in Russia, which shares a 2,600 mile-long border with China, would be a major strategic problem for China. The obvious resemblance to the Arab Spring is still more threatening for a ruling party that lives in fear of repeating the fate of the Soviet Union. If uprisings in Egypt and Libya created a strategic headache for China, Russia has the potential to be a migraine.
A change of government could cost China an important friend. While the two countries aren’t allies, and much recent analysis (including my own) has focused on rising strategic tensions, the two countries are still very important to each other. Russia tends to take China’s side in debates at the U.N. Security Council, continues to supply arms to the People’s Liberation Army, and provides cover in territorial disputes. The vast borderlands make friendly relations vital to China’s security, and a Western-oriented government in Russia would add to China’s already considerable fear of being encircled by American allies.
Equally fearsome to China’s leaders would be the continuation of the wave of democratic revolutions that began in Tunisia. The Arab Spring made the Party uneasy, likely contributing to a wave of crackdowns on dissidents. Party leaders still obsess over the collapse of the Soviet Union, looking for lessons that will help it avoid a similar end (this is well documented in David Shambaugh’s book ‘China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation’).
The sudden collapse of seemingly stable authoritarian states forces China’s leaders to doubt their own apparently tight control and fear that their own record of delivering prosperity won’t protect them from a sort of democratic domino effect. Without Russia, China would be left almost alone as an authoritarian state – in the dubious company of states like Iran, North Korea, and Cuba.
Chinese official reaction has been muted so far. China has recognized the disputed elections results, but there has been no editorial response from the official Xinhua news agency, or even the semi-official People’s Daily. Xinhua’s news coverage so far has been more sympathetic to Putin than Western media, but largely balanced. A foreign ministry spokesman told the press that “China believes that this Russian Duma election reflected the wishes of the Russian people. China respects the choice of the Russian people, and supports Russia’s choice of a development path that suits its national conditions.” The Global Times, a conservative but largely independent newspaper owned by the People’s Daily, has published an editorial arguing that a new Russian government wouldn’t be a Western ally – and took pains to argue that it wasn’t connected to the Arab Spring.
As the article just linked to notes, Putin was formally awarded the farcical Confucius Peace Prize on Friday, but you should absolutely ignore its implication that this represents the views of the Chinese government. The prize is now awarded by a body that is not authorized to operate in mainland China, let alone act as a representative of the Chinese government.
So far, the protests in Russia are nowhere near a second (or perhaps sixth) Tahrir Square. But China’s leaders are surely watching Putin’s survival closely – and, by extension, trying to divine what the future holds for them.