Is China beginning to distance itself from Russia?

20 March 2022

12:49 AM

20 March 2022

12:49 AM

The read-outs from Friday’s two-hour call between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping were so different, that you have to wonder whether the two leaders were on the same line. The White House version had Biden bluntly warning China of the consequences of providing assistance to Russia, while Beijing’s take presented Xi as a peacemaker

‘The Ukraine crisis is something we don’t want to see,’ Xi reportedly said. ‘Conflict and confrontation are not in the interests of anyone.’ The American read-out focussed narrowly on Ukraine, China’s on the broader relationship between the two countries. Global Times, the usually strident Communist party tabloid, described it as a ‘constructive interaction’.

This comes amid a subtle shift in the way Chinese state media is covering the conflict. For the first time there are reports of Russian military losses and the civilian toll of Russian strikes. The People’s Daily reported Ukrainian foreign ministry estimates that 14,000 Russian troops have been killed, while CGTN, the global arm of China’s state broadcaster, said in a tweet on Friday, ‘The dead bodies of people killed by Russian shelling lay covered across much of Ukraine.’

CGTN has shown footage of civilians sheltering from Russian missile attacks and a Russian tank firing on a civilian in Mariupol. There has been considerable coverage of Chinese humanitarian supplies, including powdered milk for children and quilts.

Initially, state media were relentlessly pro-Russian. Nationalist bloggers, always given more leeway on China’s tightly controlled internet, cheered on Vladimir Putin. The slogan ‘Nato still owes the Chinese people a debt of blood,’ created by the People’s Daily, was a top hashtag on Weibo, a social media platform. It refers to the 1999 accidental bombing by Nato of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in which three people died. Another top meme showed a pig labelled ‘Taiwan’ watching another pig called ‘Ukraine’ be slaughtered. Chinese broadcasters dropped coverage of Premier League matches because of displays of support for Ukraine.

China is also helping to spread Russian disinformation. Zhao Lijian, the foreign ministry spokesman, stoked a conspiracy theory that Russian troops had uncovered US biological labs in Ukraine stocked with dangerous viruses.

The narrative shifted slightly when the plight of Chinese nationals trapped in Ukraine swept across Chinese social media. One video post claimed students in Kharkiv were being shot at indiscriminately by Russian soldiers. Another appeal came from the basement of the Kharkiv Aviation Institute, saying that 188 Chinese students were sheltering there from the shelling. It was accompanied by a photograph of students sitting among a clutter of mobile phones and phone chargers.

A recording of a call to the Chinese embassy was listened to more than 1.5 million times. ‘I’m really scared,’ says a cracked woman’s voice, pleading for help. ‘I called you guys over and over and over again, and really, I am freaking out.’ China now claims all its nationals are out of Ukraine, and the eye-witness accounts they are bringing home are a testament to Russian barbarity.

This week Hu Wei, an influential political scientist affiliated with China’s State Council reportedly called on Beijing to distance itself as soon as possible from Moscow’s aggression, warning that China could otherwise become isolated while Washington regains leadership. ‘Under current international circumstances, China can only proceed by safeguarding its own best interests, choosing the lesser of two evils and unloading the burden of Russia,’ he wrote in an analysis shared overseas but censored in China.

Beijing appears to be engaged in a more ambitious diplomatic play, looking for broader concessions from Washington as a price for its cooperation. ‘China and the US need to respect each other, coexist in peace and avoid confrontation, and that the two sides should increase communication and dialogue at all levels and in all fields,’ was the rather bland way the People’s Daily put it Saturday. Translation: go easy on China in other areas if you want our help on Ukraine.

This will be familiar to those who have dealt with China over issues such as climate change and North Korea, where cooperation is deemed to be vital. Too often when Beijing knows it has leverage, it pockets concessions from the west and then systematically forgets, fudges or ignores its commitments.

There is of course huge urgency over Ukraine, but the west should be wary of concessions to China that it might later come to regret – especially as China seems to be (slowly) coming to its own conclusion that unconditional backing for Putin is not such a great idea, damaging its standing and ambitions.

That said, a good dose of caution is required in assessing China’s apparent change of tone. While China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has acknowledged for the first time that a ‘war’ is taking place in Ukraine, Xi cannot bring himself to call the invasion an invasion. He has not directly criticised Russia and continues to echo Putin’s justifications. As long as Xi is unable to recognise that his ‘best friend’ is an aggressor, his offers of mediation have no credibility.


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