Lu Shaye, China’s controversial ambassador to France, caused a diplomatic uproar over the weekend, as he implied that post-Soviet countries did not really have a right to exist in international law.
“Even these ex-Soviet countries don’t have an effective status in international law because there was no international agreement to materialize their status as sovereign countries,” Lu said on a French TV program, in the context of rationalizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning quickly attempted to clean up the mess. She asserted that “China respects the sovereign status of the former Soviet countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”
So, was Lu’s controversial statement just a simple gaffe by a loose-mouthed diplomat? Or was it what is often called in U.S. politics a “Washington gaffe” – an unfortunate misstatement that inadvertently reveals true thinking on the subject?
Most likely Lu’s comments, like China’s confusing position on the war in Ukraine itself, are a natural outgrowth of the political positions top leader Xi Jinping has forced Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members to internalize – with disastrous ramifications for foreign policy in Europe and China’s human rights record at home.
Xi has constantly seen the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, and a historical lesson for CCP members to meticulously study so as to avoid. In this view, mentioning the human rights atrocities committed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is an effort to undermine the achievements of the Soviet system. In Xi’s telling, a freer press and accurate historical accounts of Stalin’s atrocities brought doubt on the Soviet system. By extension, continued censorship of the press and academia is the answer for today’s CCP.
For example, in 2014 Xi famously stated:
Recently domestic and foreign hostile forces have often written falsely about China’s revolutionary history and New China’s history, doing their utmost to attack, defame, and slander it, with the ultimate aim of causing confusion in people’s hearts, inciting the overthrow of the Communist Party leadership and Our Country’s Socialist System… Think back: Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapse? A major reason is the wholesale denial of Soviet history, of Soviet Communist history, a denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, committing historical nihilism – and confusing [people’s] thoughts.
In Xi’s framing, the mere mention of any brutality committed by the Soviets can only be seen as a ploy to engage in “historical nihilism” and undermine Soviet credibility. With this mindset, Xi would find it difficult to acknowledge how Czechs, people from the Baltic states, Poles, Ukrainians, and others view their countries’ own histories. Many in the former Soviet Socialist Republics share a sense of having been invaded, stripped of sovereignty, and “illegally occupied” by the Soviets.
But this mindset doesn’t belong to Xi alone. CCP officials have been forced to watch state-run documentaries on why the Soviet Union fell. They must read Xi’s speeches mentioning Soviet history as it relates to the CCP in the People’s Daily. In contrast, they have never been required to learn about the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s that killed millions. Similarly, Chinese Human Rights Defenders was unable to find any media articles by China’s state press outlets covering Drėlingas v. Lithuania, the 2019 court case at the European Court of Human Rights assessing whether Soviet crimes against Lithuanian partisans could constitute genocide.
This lack of interest in any narratives that fundamentally challenge Soviet authority is arguably one reason, among other geopolitical factors, why European pressure on Xi to exert influence on Vladimir Putin to end Russian aggression has seemingly proved ineffective.
In their recent trips to China, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock all sought to convince China to exert its influence on Russia to end the war on Ukraine – or at least provide guarantees that Beijing will not provide Putin’s forces with deadly weaponry.
China appears to be unmoved by the overtures to stop the war, despite the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) having recorded 8,174,189 refugees from Ukraine as of April 2023 and Russian forces continuing to kill civilians and commit other war crimes.
Politico reported that Xi appeared “impatient and annoyed” when Macron openly addressed China’s leverage to help end the war. In his press conference with Macron, Xi reiterated China’s position as calling for “peace talks” and for the “the reasonable security concerns of all sides with reference to the U.N. Charter” to be taken into consideration by the international community. In the face of ongoing death and destruction in Ukraine brought about by Russia, Xi urged the international community to remain “rational and calm.”
When Xi finally held his first phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, 14 months after Russia’s full-scale invasion began, his pledge that “China would not sit idly by” amid the conflict rang hollow.
In sharp contrast to the belated contact with Zelenskyy, Xi made a state visit to Moscow in March and Chinese and Russian officials meet on a regular basis. China’s state press has continued to hail the China-Russia relationship as a “no limits” partnership, and they plan to deepen military cooperation.
Domestically, Xi’s campaign against “historical nihilism” is evident in the CCP’s tightened censorship over the press, the publishing industry, and academia.
Just in the last month, it has come to light that Li Yanhe, a publisher based in Taiwan, has been detained in Shanghai. Li’s company, Gusa Publishing, took on many “sensitive” book translations that no publisher in China could touch, such as Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” about the society-wide censorship campaign around the 1989 killings of pro-democracy protesters. Li Yanhe’s detention underscores the government’s desire to control the Chinese language publishing industry, even in Taiwan.
Prominent journalists have also been detained. Dong Yuyu, an experienced Chinese journalist who took part in the prestigious Nieman Fellow program at Harvard University, where journalists deepen their professional skills through tailored classes and conferences, is being tried on espionage charges. Dong was taken away in 2022 when he was set to meet with a Japanese diplomat. Dong’s detention signals the danger Chinese journalists and intellectuals face when they interact with diplomats or other foreigners.
It also recently emerged that citizen journalist Fang Bin, who video-recorded some of the deaths from COVID-19 in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020, uploaded them on YouTube, and then subsequently went missing, was secretly tried and sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Not only did Fang face enforced disappearance and a secret trial, but his conviction was a foregone conclusion; the outcome of the case was determined by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the CCP body that oversees and coordinates work of the police, prosecution, and courts. This troubling revelation shows that any “sensitive” legal case can easily be directed by China’s political leaders.
For many China watchers, the domestic ramifications of China’s control over publishing, academia, and journalism are well-known. But, as can be seen from Lu Shaye’s astonishing claim and China’s position on Ukraine, there are international ramifications to these constraints on freedom of expression.
The international community ignores Chinese censorship and domestic human rights abuses at its own peril.