For generations, Chinese people have been told that the outside world is often an unsafe and disappointing place. Quarrels among foreigners, Communist theorists teach, are best understood as contests of power and self-interest. Regardless of what outsiders claim, official speeches and news reports have relentlessly cast doubt on the notion that the behavior of other states can be explained by moral values. China Seen as an exception: a peace-loving giant who only seeks to do good.
Instilling cynicism about the world is good for the party. Without it, February 4 could turn out to be a tricky anniversary for President Xi Jinping.It’s been a year since his announcement China and Russia Just days before Vladimir Putin’s bloody, land-grabbing invasion of Ukraine, we enjoyed “unlimited friendship”.
Russian brutality soon forced once-close partners such as Germany to declare Putin a dangerous warmonger. Xi Jinping has more leeway because Russia is not a pariah in mainstream Chinese public opinion. Propaganda and censorship partly explain why. For nearly a year, every evening news has blamed the Ukrainian conflict on the U.S. and the NATO defense alliance, blaming their eastward expansion for cornering Russia. As recently as January 30, Beijing’s foreign ministry accused the United States of delaying the war and “making huge profits from the war” by sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University of China, said that many Chinese people have heard remarks about Russian war crimes, such as the alleged massacre of civilians in Bucha, and suspect that it is “fake news” fabricated by Ukraine and its Western allies.
In a way, there are more dire factors at play. The party implies in its teachings that it would be naive to ask whether governments are evil or good. Their influence on China is what matters most. Russia has plenty of armed forces and goods to sell, and shares China’s grudge against the United States. The rulers of China, let alone the people of China, do not care who controls this or that state of Ukraine. But China does have a vital interest in discrediting U.S.-led alliances that could one day pose a threat in China’s East Asian backyard. Therefore, Russia hopes to successfully defy and divide the West, discredit NATO and survive the sanctions imposed on it.
Indifference to Russian brutality does not equate to approval of all of Putin’s actions. Chinese foreign policy pundits such as Professor Wang admit to being frustrated by Russia’s annexation of swaths of Ukraine, reminding scholars of the 1.5 million square kilometers that Tsarist Russia seized from China’s last enfeebled imperial dynasty. But foreign powers don’t need to be admirable to be effective.
Heilongjiang province, in China’s frigid north, is a good place to observe this bland pragmatism. At the end of the Mao era, when China and the Soviet Union were close to all-out war, Red Guards ransacked an onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral in Harbin. Harbin is a railway hub city established by the tsarist army and settlers more than 120 years ago. Today, Harbin markets the former cathedral as a romantic “European-style” tourist destination. On a recent evening, the teahouse bought a ticket and asked selfie tourists whether the war in Ukraine had changed their view of Russia. Not so, according to two university students from nearby Liaoning province. Russia is good because it has not betrayed China’s global or national interests, one person said. The conversation turned to the changing global balance of power. His friend added that China, having learned Marxism-Leninism from Russia, is now the “dragon soaring in the East” while the West is “slowly declining”.
A slow sleeper train then transported Chaguan further north to the city of Heihe, on the frozen border river with Russia. In 1900, Russian Cossack troops captured the north bank of the river by driving Chinese peasants and laborers into the water. Thousands were drowned. British passport holders have access to the nearby Aihui History Museum (which museum guards admit Russian citizens are “generally” not allowed to enter), where a 69-meter panorama commemorates the brutal massacre. It shows Cossacks raping women, bayoneting Chinese into a river, and machine gunning people in the water. All in all, the museum documents centuries of Russian invasions. Text at the exit tells visitors the lesson to draw from this history: work to make China and its military strong, not breed hatred. “If you’re weak, you’ll be bullied. If you’re behind, you’ll be beaten,” it advises.
Upstream of the museum stands Heihe’s hope for the future – the first road bridge on the Sino-Russian border river. The project, which opens in summer 2022, has been dragged on for years by Russia over concerns about China dominating its sparsely populated Far East. Locals “of course” remember Russia’s past looting, said a woman at a shop selling Russian honey, chocolates and other souvenirs to Chinese tourists (or before the city was shut down by COVID-19 controls for nearly three years). But if cross-border trade opens up, “Heihe has a chance to really take off.”
probably better than right
The shopkeeper next door said that Russia is poor and China is rich. He proudly reported that “beautiful” Russian women were married to Chinese men. He had never heard of a Chinese woman marrying a Russian husband. He thinks Russia is “not bad” as a country. A friend smokes with him, denouncing the US, UK and their allies for meddling in Ukrainian affairs. If Russia chooses to attack Ukrainians, it’s a civil war, the friend growled: “It’s all the same country.”
Poor Russian infrastructure will slow local development, a third trader predicted, although cheap oil and gas from Russia should generally help China. He blamed the West for Ukraine’s death, as the smaller country would have lost to Russia “a long time ago” without NATO weapons. His focus on relative strength, rather than the right or wrong of invasion, darkened his view of peacemaking. It’s a perfect fit for leaders in far-flung Beijing.
Read more from our China columnist Zha Guan: What a new drama reveals about China (January 26) Take a slow train in China (January 19) Many Chinese villagers appear ready to shake off covid-19 (January 12)
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