Mainland scholars react to Putin mentioning China during the Carlson interview

Globally there has been no or little mention of Putin referring to China in the interview with Tucker Carlson. But in mainland China, scholars are seriously debating Carlson’s a couple of provocative questions and Putin’s at times ‘uncharitable’ comments on China.

“Ludicrous,” “useful idiot,” “Trump’s agent,” “Putin collaborator,” “absurd” etc. are some extreme reactions from the US/European political elite on the “scandalous” two-hour long “talk show” the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson conducted with the Russian “autocrat,” “invader,” “enemy of the West” leader, Valdimir Putin. On the other hand, in China, when the interview-video was released on February 9, on the eve of the week-long Spring Festival holiday break was just about to kick off, it was instantly watched by millions and loved by the ordinary people and strategic affairs experts alike. As reported, of over 100 million people who watched the video online globally during the first 24 hours after its release, nearly 47 per cent viewers were mainland Chinese.  

China’s official Xinhua news agency reported the Carlson-Putin interview as “breaking news,” and called it the Russian leader’s first-ever interview with a Western media figure since the Russian invasion. Popular digital news platform headlined it as “Putin in conversation with the US reporter Carlson: Talks about Russia-Ukraine situation, Nord Stream ‘Incident’, Biden Presidency…” The semi-official tabloid the Global Times (English) hailed the interview for “Enabling the American public to form a balanced view of Russia.” A Chinese language “independent” online news platform, popular among tech-savvy urban intelligentsia, uploaded a quick “2-minute highlights of 2-hour long conversation” with Mandarin subtitles headlined as “Putin’s rare interview with an American reporter:”    

It is indeed true analysts and observers have generally acknowledged that the Russian leader scored big “by attracting the global attention” while they underscored the point that he (Putin) communicated to the Western audience in the “most direct and authoritative way” the Russian position on a host of important issues. Adjudging it a high-quality interview, Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, said: “[Through] Carlson interview, Putin has conveyed to the American public Russia’s views on issues such as the Ukraine crisis, as well as the merits of the many disputes between the US and Russia.” Unfortunately, it (the interview) won’t have the slightest impact on American policymakers and the mainstream media, Professor Li quickly added. 

However, experts and scholars in China have also given conflicting interpretations of Putin’s comments about China during the interview. Some Chinese scholars could not hide their heightened anxiety mixed with delight over frequent mentioning of China during a 2-hour interview. While some others were noticeably intrigued by a few “mischievous” questions from Carlson and irritated by some “uncharitable” remarks offered by Putin. Take for example Carlson’s question about the BRICS organization becoming completely dominated by China, which was seen in China as provocative and an attempt to sow discord between China and Russia. On the other hand, Putin’s remark that China was the biggest threat to the US caused confusion and negative reactions in the mainland.    

Interestingly, however, no other foreign leader enjoys as much admiration and respect in China today as Vladimir Putin. China’s young TikTok users love “Daddy Putin.” Users of Douyin, the original Chinese version of the popular TikTok video-sharing app, have referred to Putin as “Prince Charming.” On Weibo – China’s most popular and the world’s largest social media platform – millions of Putin’s adoring fans call him “hero.” China’s biggest Xinhua bookstore on Wangfujing street in the heart of Beijing claims books on Vladimir Putin far outsell those on other foreign leaders; according to the bookstore staff, following the Ukraine invasion Putin’s biography was on display along with that of Jack Ma.   

What is most remarkable is that Putin’s popularity in China is now at least a decade old. In October 2014, Jeremy Page, the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) former Political and Diplomatic editor in Beijing bureau had reported: China’s fascination with Mr. Putin is more than literary, marking a shift in the post-Cold War order and in Chinese politics. It is claimed that Putin is the second most popular, most admired Russian leader in China after Stalin. It is pertinent to recall, at the peak of the Cold War when the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) dropped the cult of Stalin, Mao Zedong condemned it as revisionism.    

Like Stalin and Mao Zedong, perhaps also like Xi Jinping, Putin is seen by most Chinese people as a strong leader who is not only fully devoted to safeguarding the interests of his country and people, but who is also not afraid to confront and stand up to the West. Following Putin ordering Russian troops to march into Ukraine two years ago, a Chinese blogger urging Russians posted in Anhui province: “we want to worship you (Putin) more day by day.” “Russian citizens must come together to support Putin,” she further added. Another Chinese user in Jiangsu, wrote: “Daddy Putin is the best.”   

Let us recount the ten references Putin made about China: settlement in RMB accounting for 34 per cent of Sino-Russian trade; China being Russia’s neighbor, and neighbors, like relatives, cannot be chosen; China’s diplomacy is non-aggressive and China always seeks compromise; the scale of China’s trade is expanding, it is expanding more with Europe than with Russia; the US decision to limit cooperation with China is political and is hurting China as much as to the US itself; Sino-Russian bilateral trade has increase exponentially and has reached 230 billion US dollars; China’s growing dominance in the BRICS organization; China-Russia trade is balanced and complimentary in fields such as high-tech, energy, and scientific research and development; in PPP terms, China’s economy has become the world’s largest economy and has long surpassed the US; and lastly, the United States seeks to further disintegrate and divide Russia into several quasi-state entities first, then use their combined potential to prepare for future struggle with China.

What is perhaps most revealing about the mixed responses in China is, at least three of Putin’s above remarks have generated reactions among observers which are generally not widely known outside China. The reactions, as pointed out by the Eightify app – YouTube summary with ChatGPT, highlight the “contradictory and scheming relationship” between China and Russia. As mentioned, the digital Chinese language news platform has termed Carlson’s asking Putin “Are you worried that the BRICS organization will be completely dominated by the Chinese economy” as trying to sow discord between Beijing and Moscow.  

Last week, in an online blog account signed as mudlegs guanke (泥腿观客), readers were urged to carefully read into what Putin’s remarks about China actually meant. On the face of it, all that Putin said about China of course sounded very friendly and positive, but “we must interpret their real meaning in the proper context and relate to their corresponding strategic logic,” the blog said. The blog particularly put to scrutiny Putin’s “friendly” remark that “China is the world’s largest economy.” It pointed out, this was the first time ever Putin publicly acknowledged China has emerged the world’s largest and strongest economy in PPP terms. The blog emphatically observed, the remark’s significance lay in the fact that it was intended to convey to Western political elite the growing strength of China, so why has America traveled thousands of miles to fight in Ukraine?

The blog also drew a connection between Putin’s remark that “the West is afraid of a strong China more than it fears a strong Russia, because Russia has 150 million people and China has 1.5 billion population” and Putin mentioning “Russia and the United States have not severed ties.” Notwithstanding the prevailing “best ties between Russia and China in history,” the blog reminded the Chinese readers that it is the national interests that determine relations between nations. “When Russia-US relations return to normal and especially when the world situation is not conducive to China, or suppose when China is in the position in which Russia finds itself today and when the US is completely suppressing and containing China, will Russia still be friendly to us?” the blog asked.

It is quite apparent from op-ed commentaries in the Chinese media and online blogs that despite “no limit” friendship between Russia and China or “bromance” between Xi Jinping and Putin, the public opinion in China has never stopped harboring suspicion regarding Moscow’s commitment toward Russia-China friendship. As it is quite evident and self-revealing in the following observation made in a recent commentary: “It is hard to say for certain what the future holds, but there are signs. But we must also see that Putin has actually been trying to integrate Russia into the West. We must recognize the reality if Russia integrates with the West in the future and the United States and the West will target China. If we do not fight back forcefully, the danger will be even greater.”

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.