Main Image Credit Limits after all: Chinese President Xi Jinping with Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Samarkand in September, where the Russian leader acknowledged China's 'questions and concerns' over Ukraine. Image: UPI / Alamy
How Beijing navigates its position on Ukraine with respect to public opinion could present important lessons for how it might respond to future crises.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to expose the complicated dynamics behind public opinion in its ‘no limits’ partner, the People’s Republic of China. Conventional wisdom suggests that public opinion is irrelevant to the Chinese government, which does not hold competitive, multiparty elections. In reality, how citizens feel about domestic and foreign policy is a cornerstone of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. Cognisance of this fact is essential to understanding China’s state-led media, censorship and security apparatuses, and how the country navigates international crises like the war in Ukraine and a possible conflict over Taiwan.
Within a few weeks of the invasion in February, Beijing’s official position on the conflict slowly crystallised into offering Russia moral and rhetorical support. Astute observers of Beijing’s diplomatic rhetoric and social media noted how this support was primarily refracted through an anti-Western prism, as opposed to genuine support for Russian interests in Ukraine. Spokespeople for China’s foreign ministry criticised the US for instigating the conflict by pushing NATO’s boundaries eastward – a narrative still widely embraced in Chinese diplomatic, intellectual and online discourse. Moreover, guidance allegedly leaked from a Chinese state media outlet instructed reporters not to publish content ‘unfavourable to Russia or pro-Western’, which was followed by streams of pro-Russian propaganda on Chinese state media and widespread censorship of contrary positions.
By early spring, data suggested that – among internet users in China – support for Russia was fairly high. An online survey published by the Carter Center’s US–China Perception Monitor in April 2022, for example, found that 75% of Chinese respondents believed supporting Russia’s invasion was in China’s national interest. A subsequent survey by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies also found that more than 80% of respondents held positive views of Russia. Nonetheless, what appeared like high levels of support on the surface did not necessarily indicate strongly held beliefs. Another survey fielded around the same period by the China Data Lab at the University of California San Diego found support was closer to 40% when respondents were given the option to say they neither support nor oppose Russia.
Keen observers have noted shifts in Chinese state media’s coverage of the conflict over time, such as a greater voice given to Ukrainian officials and narratives
The self-limiting nature of these perceptions was further revealed by the types of support that Chinese citizens are willing to provide. Despite relatively high levels of belief in Russian narratives about the conflict, only 16% of respondents to the Carter Center survey indicated a willingness to provide weapons to Russia, with respondents preferring instead to offer moral support by a large margin. Similarly, when asked by China Data Lab whether China should support Russia’s actions, stay neutral, keep silent, or support the US, around 55% of respondents indicated that China should stay neutral. These figures contrast heavily with US public opinion on the conflict – a recent poll by Ipsos, for example, found that 66% of US respondents supported providing weapons to Ukraine, and 73% felt the US should continue to do so despite Russian threats to use nuclear weapons.
Evidence suggests that support for Russia’s position may have weakened since these surveys were conducted, particularly among Chinese intellectuals and some elites. As early as March, there were rumblings about internal controversy caused by China’s approach to the conflict. This was best reflected by the publication of a sharp critique of China’s position by Shanghai-based academic and government advisor Hu Wei. Unable to communicate his views internally or through a China-based outlet, he published the article on a website based in the US. Hu was not alone in his criticism, and other intellectuals continued to denounce the Russian invasion. By August, a handful of leading Chinese scholars – including one who argued that the war was orchestrated by the US and NATO – had expressed opposition to Russia sending troops, and indicated that a protracted defeat was the worst of all outcomes for China.
To what degree Beijing is influenced – or constrained – by these changes in elite and public opinion remains an open question. Despite Moscow’s desperate circumstances, Beijing still refuses to provide weapons or material support to the Russian war effort. Keen observers have noted shifts in Chinese state media’s coverage of the conflict over time, such as a greater voice given to Ukrainian officials and narratives. In June, the Chinese government transferred former Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng – who is known for touting the Russia–China partnership on the international stage – to a regulatory role in China’s state media, a move which analysts speculated was out of concern that China was appearing too close to Russia (although evidence for this is limited). Vladimir Putin’s acknowledgement in late September that Xi Jinping had raised ‘questions and concerns’ about the invasion, along with Xi’s recent rebukes of Moscow’s threat to use nuclear weapons, also suggest there may in fact be some limits to the Russia–China partnership vis-à-vis Ukraine.
If Beijing were to grow more critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this would undoubtedly raise questions in China about the regime’s intent to use military force to reunify Taiwan
Nonetheless, how Beijing navigates its position on Ukraine with respect to public opinion could present important lessons for how it might respond to future crises. In the aftermath of the 20th Party Congress, Xi has cemented his power and leaned further into his agenda of ‘national rejuvenation’, which entails reunifying Taiwan with the mainland and displacing Western allied power in the Asia-Pacific. If Beijing were to grow more critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – whether in terms of territorial integrity, human rights, or its economic toll – this would undoubtedly raise questions in China about the regime’s intent to use military force to reunify Taiwan. It would also alienate what Beijing sees as its key nondemocratic partner as it locks itself in competition with Western democracies. As a result, the opinion environment fostered by Beijing has reduced its policy flexibility in the medium term, generating the risk of public disapproval if it changes course.
What might ultimately force Beijing’s hand in terms of ending its tacit support for Russia in Ukraine? Beijing appears to recognise its increasingly isolated position in the international community due to its ‘zero-COVID’ policy and its alignment with Russia, and made overtures to world leaders at the G20 summit in Bali as a result. If Moscow uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Beijing will undoubtedly apply pressure on Moscow to de-escalate, even if it does not abandon its anti-Western position. Not only has Xi now stated twice that nuclear weapons should not be used in the conflict, but peer-reviewed evidence demonstrates there is a strong norm against nuclear use among the Chinese public. In 2021, for example, nearly 90% of Chinese respondents believed that no country should ever use nuclear weapons in warfare. If Moscow takes this dramatic step, Beijing will struggle to convince itself – and the Chinese public – that its alignment with Russia is worth the associated costs.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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