reading time 11 minutes
Anyone relying solely on official statements and state media may have missed that Chinese public opinion is gradually turning against Russia – and in favor of Ukraine – as the war drags on. points out Mu Chunshan.
At the beginning of the Ukrainian war, I wrote an article for The Diplomat telling the world that it was impossible for China to support a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The facts of the war confirmed this; developments at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in 2022 point in this direction.
The war in Ukraine has been going on for seven months, but Russia has received little recognition even from the international organizations it leads. In the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for example, Russia only supports Belarus; in the SCO, no member or partner state publicly recognizes the legitimacy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While commentators in the West often conflate the lack of criticism with open support for the Russian invasion, it is not the same.
The war clearly exposed Russia’s weakness. Geopolitically, it is isolated to such an extent that even “pro-Russian” international organizations have no way to lend a helping hand. Thus, the SCO summit did not form the anti-American or anti-Western united front with China and other partners that Russia had hoped for.
Conversely, Russia’s focus on Ukraine has created a Russian power vacuum in Central Asia and the Middle East. Turkey and China have 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 (Uzbek President) at this SCO summit. Central Asia is looking for new friends and finding them in the truest sense of the word. Based on the influx of new dialogue partners, future expansion of the SCO will focus on the Middle East, reflecting the increasingly close relationship between China and Middle Eastern countries through the Belt and Road Initiative.
As a result of these developments, the game between China, the US and Russia is becoming more and more interesting. The official statements of China and Russia at the SCO summit clearly mentioned the strengthening of cooperation between the two countries. Putin has offered clear support for China’s stance on Taiwan, but China has not publicly supported Russia’s war in Ukraine.
After the SCO summit, US President Joe Biden claimed in an interview that he did not see concrete measures and promises from China to support Russia, but mentioned that it would help defend Taiwan from attack. His comments reflect the fact that Russia is more dependent on China and the United States is more afraid of China.
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 announced a partial mobilization and a plan to hold a referendum in several regions of Ukraine that he occupies. This clearly shows that Sino-Russian relations have not been able to relieve the pressure of the Russian war. As Ukraine advances into Russian-occupied territory, China has not offered Putin increased support — quite the contrary.
I personally support the friendship between China and Russia. After all, they are two big countries and neighbors. Just as the US must be friends with Canada, China and Russia must have friendly ties to maximize benefits. A major rift between the two countries – as seen in the late days of the Soviet Union – would harm their national interests.
But supporting Sino-Russian friendship does not mean agreeing that everything Russia does is right. I believe the Chinese officials have the same attitude.
However, only paying attention to the stance 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, a former deputy foreign minister of Russia, arrived in Beijing as the new ambassador to China. He is an old Chinese acquaintance and does not need to be told how to understand China. But he was in Beijing more than 10 years ago, and today’s China is completely different.
In my opinion, the new Russian ambassador should pay more attention to two issues in relation to the Ukraine war to gain a more comprehensive and accurate view of the complex China – which will benefit Sino-Russian friendship.
First, focus more on changes in Chinese public opinion. The idea that making friends with the government will solve all problems once and for all is outdated. The Chinese government is also increasingly concerned about changes in public opinion. If people are dissatisfied with some policies, the government will consider revising them to prevent the problem from spreading and affecting social stability.
It should also be normal for Russia to take into account the influence of Chinese public opinion when developing relations with China. But I have noticed several recent cases where the Russian government has been 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 image showed Chinese soldiers against a background of the Japanese flag. The Chinese public was unhappy with this and a large number of messages asked the embassy to correct the mistake, but there was no response from Russia.
Earlier, in July, Russian media published an image on Chinese social media highlighting the SCO. The image depicted land claimed by China along the uninhabited Sino-Indian border as Indian territory. The image also caused a lot of protests from ordinary Chinese, so Russia had to apologize for it.
And even earlier, Russian state media published comments on the establishment of Vladivostok (Chai-shen-wai in Chinese) on Chinese social networks. It also fueled public anger because Russia had taken territory from China 150 years ago through unequal treaties, widely seen as a historical source of shame for China. Celebrating the founding of Vladivostok on Chinese social media was an easy-to-remove misstep on Russia’s part; this will only deepen the Chinese people’s distrust of Russia.
At a time when Russia is already feeling the enormous pressure of its war in Ukraine, Moscow needs the Chinese people to understand the Russian position. Still, many PR mistakes can easily worsen the Chinese people’s impression of Russia and thereby reduce their support. It is clear that these problems would not have arisen if Russia had a more careful understanding of Chinese public opinion. This 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 certainly hears a lot about support for the Russian position from Chinese officials and pro-Russian figures. Conversely, Chinese voices speaking against the Russian invasion of Ukraine may not be sufficiently heard by Russian politicians.
Russia should understand that true friends can criticize each other. Faced with the fact that some Chinese people support Ukraine against Russia, the Russian embassy should try to understand the reason and not turn a blind eye.
Chinese misgivings about the war in Ukraine have grown over the past seven months. For example, in the first 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 state 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 the state media, in the past few months, discussions about the war in Ukraine have been rampant on Chinese social media. Debates are easy to find and the pro-Russian group is more passive than before.
In one group, some ordinary people even gave Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu nicknames, mocking Russia’s military purchases of weapons from Iran and North Korea. And pro-Russian netizens have trouble rebutting these insults. They will just say that Putin is playing a big game of chess and waiting for winter to come.
The quieter pro-Russian voices are a sign that some Chinese who have supported Russia in the past see the war situation worsening. These people start to worry about the consequences. Many of my journalist friends were initially optimistic about Russia’s victory over Ukraine, but are now even thinking about the impact on China if the Russian military fails. This change is related not only to the situation on the battlefield, but also to the more cautious judgment of the Chinese media and even Chinese officials about the future of Russia.
The Chinese are not anti-Russian; if there was no war, they would not stand between Russia and Ukraine. But many see the situation very simply: Russia has started a war against a country with which it has diplomatic relations, thereby violating a peace treaty. This is not only against international law, but may also be risky for China.
For example, the news that Russia will hold referendums on the annexation of the territory in Ukraine has caused wariness among some Chinese. This reminded them of what they had learned in Chinese textbooks: More than 70 years ago, Russia had called a similar referendum in Mongolia, cutting off part of Chinese territory. A comment from one reporter represents the mainstream view: “The Russians don’t seem to have changed after so many years.”
Interestingly, some pro-Ukraine Chinese used the referendum as a weapon against pro-Russian groups. “Can the result of the referendum on the seceding part of the country be recognized?” they are arguing. “Taiwan is part of China. If Taiwan holds its own independence referendum 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 the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
My businessman friend doesn’t usually pay attention to politics, but he revealed his concerns: The war in Ukraine has disrupted the international market order, and his asset yields are declining. He said he supports Western sanctions against Russia. “How can the Russians make a fortune in war at the expense of others losing their property? It’s not fair and Russia must be held accountable.”
As China develops, the number of people holding similar views continues to grow. It may complicate the future of Sino-Russian relations.
I wonder if the new Russian ambassador to China is interested in hearing these anti-war views – the ones that cannot be expressed in the state media?
Source in English: HERE