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China’s Public Opinion Is Shifting Away From Russia

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China’s Public Opinion Is Shifting Away From Russia

Anyone relying only on official pronouncements and the state media may have missed that Chinese public opinion is turning against Russia – and toward Ukraine – as the war drags on.

China’s Public Opinion Is Shifting Away From Russia
Credit: Depositphotos

At the beginning of the Ukraine war, I wrote an article for The Diplomat telling the world it was impossible for China to support Russia invasion of Ukraine. It has been proved correct by the facts of the war; the developments at the 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit also point in this direction.

The Ukrainian war has been going on for seven months, but Russia received little recognition even from the international organizations it leads. In the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for example, only Belarus supports Russia; in the SCO, no member or partner state publicly recognizes the legitimacy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While commentators in the West often conflate a lack of criticism and open support of Russia’s invasion, they are not the same thing.

Clearly, war has exposed a weakness in Russia. Geopolitically it has been isolated to such an extent that even “pro-Russia” international organizations have no way to lend a helping hand. So the SCO summit did not form the anti-American or anti-Western united front with China and other partners that Russia had hoped for.

On the contrary, Russia’s focus on Ukraine has created a Russian power vacuum in Central Asia and the Middle East. Turkey and China emerged as winners in filling the vacuum. Turkey is only a dialogue partner of the SCO, but President Recep Erdogan was as active as the host (the Uzbek president) at this SCO summit. Central Asia is seeking new friends and finding them in spades. Based on the flurry of new dialogue partners, the future expansion of the SCO will focus on the Middle East, which reflects the increasingly close relationship between China and the Middle Eastern countries through the Belt and Road Initiative.

As a result of these developments, the game between China, the U.S., and Russia is becoming more and more interesting. At the SCO summit, the official statements issued by China and Russia clearly mentioned the strengthening of cooperation between the two countries. Putin offered clear support for China’s position on the Taiwan issue, but China has not publicly endorsed Russia’s Ukraine war.

After the SCO summit, U.S. President Joe Biden claimed in an interview that he did not see concrete measures and promises by China to support Russia, but mentioned that he would help defend Taiwan against attack. His comments reflect the fact that Russia is more dependent on China, and the United States is more afraid of China.

The recent developments suggest that the future of Sino-Russian relations may not be as optimistic as some Russians think.

After the SCO summit, Putin suddenly declared a partial mobilization and the plan to hold referendums in several areas of Ukraine it occupied. This obviously shows that Sino-Russian relations have not been able to ease the pressure of Russia’s war. As Ukraine makes advances on Russian-occupied territory, China did not offer increased support for Putin – on the contrary.

I personally support the friendship between China and Russia. After all, they are two big countries and neighbors. Just like the U.S. must be friendly with Canada, China and Russia must have friendly ties so that they can maximize the benefits. A big contradiction between both countries – as seen in the later days of the Soviet Union – would be damaging to their national interests.

But supporting Sino-Russian friendship does not mean agreeing that everything Russia does is correct. I believe Chinese officials have the same attitude.

However, only paying attention to the attitude of the Chinese government is a flawed way to understand Sino-Russian relations. The West has often fallen into this trap, as has Russia.

Recently Igor Morgulov, formerly the Russian deputy foreign minister, came to Beijing as the new ambassador to China. He is an old China hand and does not need to be told how to understand China. But he was stationed in Beijing more than 10 years ago, and today’s China is entirely different from that era.

In my opinion, in the context of the Ukraine war, the new Russian ambassador should pay more attention to two issues in order to have a more complete and accurate view of a complex China – which will be beneficial for Sino-Russian friendship.

First, focus more on the changes in Chinese public opinion. The idea that establishing a friendship with the government will solve all problems once and for all is out of date. The Chinese government is also increasingly concerned about changes in public opinion. If the people are dissatisfied with some policies, the government will consider revising them to prevent the problem from expanding and affecting social stability.

It also should be normal for Russia to take into account the influence of Chinese public opinion when developing relations with China. But I have noticed some recent cases where Russia’s government is content to ignore Chinese public opinion.

For example, on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, an article by the Russian embassy in China criticized Japan, but the accompanying picture showed Chinese soldiers against the background of the Japanese flag. The Chinese public was dissatisfied with this, and a large number of messages asked the embassy to correct the error, but there was no response from Russia.

Before that, in July, the Russian media posted an image highlighting the SCO on Chinese social media. The image depicted land claimed by China along the unsettled Sino-Indian border as India’s territory. The image also triggered a large number of protests from ordinary Chinese, so Russia had to apologize for it.

And even earlier, the Russian state-owned media posted on Chinese social media about the commemoration of the founding of Vladivostok (Haishenwai in the Chinese language). That stimulated public anger as well, because Russia seized the area from China through unequal treaties 150 years ago, which is widely regarded as a historical source of shame for China. Trumpeting the founding of Vladivostok on Chinese social media was an easily avoided misstep by Russia; doing so will only deepen the Chinese people’s distrust of Russia.

At a time when Russia is already feeling immense pressure from its war in Ukraine, Moscow needs the Chinese people to understand Russia’s position. Yet, its many PR mistakes can easily worsen the Chinese people’s impression of Russia, thereby reducing their support for Russia. Obviously, these problems would not have arisen if Russia had understood Chinese public opinion more carefully. That may be a challenge for the new Russian ambassador to China.

Second, the new ambassador should pay more attention to voices that oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian embassy in China is certainly hearing a lot about the support of Russia’s position from Chinese officials and pro-Russian figures. On the contrary, the Chinese voices speaking against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may not be heard enough by Russian policymakers.

Russia should understand that true friends can criticize each other. When faced with the fact that some Chinese support Ukraine against Russia, the Russian embassy should seek to understand the reason and not turn a blind eye.

In the past seven months, Chinese doubts about the Ukraine war have grown. For example, in the first few weeks of the war, China’s state television network, CCTV, invited many famous international experts to discuss the situation. Many openly said that Russia would definitely win. But these voices have recently disappeared from the state-owned media, and their past comments have become a favorite joke among some Chinese netizens.

Meanwhile, opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is growing in Chinese public opinion. Although it is not possible to express open criticism of Russia in state-owned media outlets, discussions on the Ukraine war have grown on Chinese social media over the past few months. The debates are easy to find, and the pro-Russian group is more passive than before.

In one sign, some ordinary people even gave Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu nicknames, mocking Russian military purchases of weapons from Iran and North Korea. And pro-Russian netizens have a hard time rebutting these insults. They will only say Putin is playing a grand chess game and he is waiting for winter to come.

The quieter pro-Russian voices are a sign that some Chinese who supported Russia in the past see that the war situation is getting worse. These people are beginning to worry about the consequences. Many of my journalist friends were optimistic about Russia’s victory over Ukraine at first, but now they are even thinking about the impact on China if the Russian army fails. This change is not only related to the battlefield situation, but also to the more cautious judgment of the Chinese media and even Chinese officials on Russia’s future.

The Chinese are not anti-Russian; if there were no war they would not take a side between Russia and Ukraine. But many see the situation very simply: Russia launched a war against a country that has diplomatic relations, defying a peace treaty to seize its land and population. This is not only against international law but may also be risky for China.

For example, the news that Russia will hold referendums in Ukraine to annex territory has made some Chinese wary. This reminded them of what they learned in Chinese textbooks: More than 70 years ago, Russia inked a similar referendum in Mongolia, which carved off part of China’s territory. One netizen’s comment on the news represents the mainstream opinion: “It seems the Russians have not changed after so many years.”

It is interesting that some pro-Ukrainian Chinese have used the Russian referendum as a weapon to counter pro-Russian groups. “Can the result of a referendum on a part of a country seceding be recognized?” they argue. “Taiwan is a part of China. If Taiwan holds its own referendum to declare independence in the future, will you accept it?”

China’s business elite and urban middle class are the main force driving social progress. They are relatively independent in their thinking. Although they are reluctant to express their views publicly, they are the least optimistic about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A businessman friend of mine doesn’t usually pay attention to politics, but he revealed his concerns: The Ukraine war has disrupted the international market order, and his asset returns are shrinking. He said he supports Western sanctions against Russia. “How can the Russians make fortunes in the war, at the expense of others losing their assets? It is not fair, and Russia must be responsible for it.”

As China develops, the number of people holding similar opinions continues to grow. It may complicate the future of Sino-Russian relations.

I wonder if the new Russian ambassador to China has any interest in hearing these anti-war opinions, the ones that can’t be voiced in state-owned media?