Russian War on Ukraine: When will Xi say to Putin: Hey, you are on your own on this

China’s abstinence in the UN Security Council vote on Ukraine last Sunday has generated mixed reactions: supporters of Beijing have welcomed it saying “China is the only adult in the room”; the critics of Xi-Putin “authoritarian axis” have been surprised by the sudden, visible turn in Beijing’s “ambiguous diplomacy.” However, analysts in China appear to be far less ambiguous in pointing out Beijing abstained because of mounting domestic criticism of China being perceived in the world as fully backing Russia. With the annual “two sessions” scheduled next week and the key twentieth Party Congress in the fall later this year, Xi suddenly becoming too cautious with every policy move now explains why China is neither endorsing nor condemning the Russian presence in Ukraine.

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In politics, as in diplomacy, a leader is perceived as extraordinary if s/he is good at calculating risks. Speaking particularly of the rise of Xi Jinping as the top leader, political scientist Daniel A. Bell, in his widely read article “Chinese Democracy Isn’t Inevitable” had observed the kind of political reform that has taken shape in China over the past three decades has been informed by the principle that “the higher the level of government, the more meritocratic the political system.” Bell, who is currently a distinguished professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, was teaching political theory in Beijing University when he wrote the article in 2015. “Xi’s four-decade-long ascent to presidency involved 16 major promotions through county, city, and province levels and then the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the top spot in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. At each stage he was scrutinized and reviewed and assessed for his leadership abilities,” Bell emphasized.   

Interestingly, until two weeks prior to Russia bearing down on Kyiv missiles in the early hours on 24 February, a leading political commentator in London declared Putin to be the biggest winner in the Ukraine conflict. The preeminent British world affairs observer did not forget to add “so far.” Then as Vladimir Putin sent his tanks and soldiers into the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, the same expert did not declare that Putin “is the biggest loser in the Ukraine conflict,” but he did go on to admit “with Putin’s snap-invasion of Ukraine, now his political survival in Russia is in doubt.” Be that as it may, though Chinese president Xi’s political survival, as also his quest for the unprecedented third term as his country’s top leader, may not at all be in doubt, but many in Beijing do not deny perhaps Xi has played the biggest gamble of his political career by standing firm along with “invader” Putin.

Now, if we go by Bell’s claim that the Chinese political system is the most competitive in the world today then, it is not incorrect to presume the post-reform communist authoritarian China’s meritocratic political system does not tolerate, and does not allow, its leadership at top level to falter. Hence, especially in the crucial year of the Party’s National Congress, and with the Communist Party of China (CPC) all set to elevate Xi to an unprecedented third five-year term, it does not at all augur well for post-Mao China’s “new helmsman” to be seen as doing flip-flop on Russia-Ukraine war crisis. After the UN Security Council vote on Ukraine last Sunday in which China abstained, a well-known IR expert overseas, describing Xi’s confused state of mind as “surprising turn” wrote: “China, which had initially supported Russian demands for a neutral Ukraine and for a rollback of NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe, noting that Russia had reasonable concerns,’ is now furiously backpedalling – calling on Moscow to seek a diplomatic solution.” (My emphasis)    

At another level, the cn.nytimes.com special columnist on China and Asian Affairs Li Yuan asked in her post titled “The New New World” last Monday, why are netizens in China cheering Russia’s invasion? Even if what Li Yuan points out in her Mandarin language column is untrue, the fact is, as the Ukraine war is raging on, the internet in China too is getting noisier. What is the noise about? Why are some Chinese netizens so excited and happy about Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine? Are these Chinese really crazy? As according to a popular blogger Yin Shuaijun, “China has been bullied by the foreign imperialist powers for over a hundred years, and China is most sensitive to the humiliation caused by foreign wars of aggression. The Chinese should have hated the war of aggression, but why is it that in the Ukraine war crisis the Chinese people are acting so indifferent?” Perhaps it is this “noisiness” which led to the top Chinese leadership to suddenly change course and stop short of standing beside Russia in the UNSC vote on the Ukraine crisis.

Or perhaps there is more to it. Although the world press is filled with commentaries warning already economically slowing down China to not get entangled with economic sanctions and trade and investment boycott from a not seen before united, aggressive EU ready to “punish” the only ally of Russia. At the same time, “noises” within China had started spilling over the print media and digital news platforms fearing the economic as well as diplomatic repercussions of China’s “Russia folly.” Speaking of the global geopolitical implications, the first commentary under a new column launched by the ftchinese.com titled Global Dialogue, and written by a mainland Chinese scholar, noted: “The Ukraine incident is no longer a local or regional incident, nor is it just a confrontation between the US and Russia, but reflects a new pattern in geopolitics. As a stakeholder in the region, it [China] faces a serious challenge in its Belt and Road Initiative strategy on the one hand, and involves maintaining good coordination between China and Russia as strategic partners, on the other hand.” As if to remind the central leadership in Beijing, the commentary went on to add: “Remember, China just cannot remain a neutral bystander looking at war in Ukraine.” 

Finally, just like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t going as planned, Xi Jinping’s (whatever) calculations in supporting Putin too have proved risky. Even the gigantic censorship authorities in Beijing have been failing in keeping firm grip over “public opinion.” Equating the first round of failed negotiations between Russia and Ukraine with a popular Cantonese idiom “chicken and duck talking,” a Chinese scholar commented: “It seems the more the war drags on, it is advantage Ukraine; and it is Russia wanting to exit early.” The traditional Chinese saying is also used as a metaphor meaning a dialogue lacking sincerity. But the scholar actually used the Chinese idiom to satirically ridicule the First Russia-Ukraine dialogue. For the idiom’s nuanced meaning is to “seek help to get out of a sticky situation.” Isn’t it ironic, soon it may turn out that it is actually China which is desperate to get out of the sticky hole it has put itself into! One only hopes Xi is not only listening but he also understands the metaphorical nuances.  

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.