Chinese ruler Xi Jinping depends on the West as a trading partner, but also wants to maintain a strong relationship with Russia. The result is a Janus-faced policy that benefits no one.
How the Chinese propaganda apparatus works can be shown well using the example of the Ukraine war. In this as in other cases, state communications agencies play on two keyboards: one for Germany, the other for abroad.
China’s embassies were doubly knit long before Beijing friend Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine campaign. Due to the language barrier (few non-Chinese speak the language), the People’s Republic was able to present itself largely unquestioned as the new guarantor for the global fight against climate change after the United States withdrew from the Paris climate agreement in 2016. At the same time, however, Beijing was already planning new coal-fired power plants.
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At the beginning of February, when the two dictators Putin and Xi Jinping met to mark the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the two spoke of a friendship that unites their countries. They praised each other and revealed to the world that together they wanted to build a more just, democratic order than the world’s democracies had previously been able to do. It’s a kind of bold communication when you’re seriously trumpeting claims that are known to be nonsense.
Red Alert: How China’s aggressive foreign policy in the Pacific is leading to a global war
Then, a few weeks later, came the invasion of Ukraine by Putin. Xi’s apparatus, which, like the ruler, was surprised by the start of the war, now had to act. He had to communicate that the recently announced axis against the USA and the free world does not immediately appear fragile. At the same time, it was important to keep a distance from the Kremlin, because Beijing officially supports the thesis of the sovereignty of the country’s borders to the West, so that it can label such a possible attack on Taiwan as an internal matter. Therefore, Beijing should actually condemn the attack on a sovereign state. Furthermore, it was to be expected that sanctions that would hit Russia and its partners could also damage the Chinese economy should Beijing position itself too close to Russia.
The language of Russia was therefore adopted to the outside world and the war was called a “special operation” that the Kremlin, almost of necessity, launched because the free world disregarded Russia’s security interests. Internally, Beijing also adopted Russian propaganda, claiming that the US was running bio-weapons laboratories in Ukraine. Russia’s unproven claims came at just the right time for Beijing, because at the same time state propaganda was working on the false narrative that the corona virus had actually been brought to China from the USA. That too is a lie.
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In the spring, several crises swept over the People’s Republic: an economic, a banking, a real estate and a credit crisis have shaken the country ever since. People took to the streets, which is risky and therefore rare in China. Ruler Xi Jinping had to do everything possible to avoid being hit by the sanctions imposed on Russia by the free world. Beijing is buying gas and oil from Russia at dumping prices, which gives the plagued Chinese economy a moment of calm. At the same time, the state apparatus is communicating that it is not supplying weapons to Russia, which the Kremlin had asked Beijing to do.
Then a number of bad news for the autocratic axis came from Ukraine: Russia is losing battle after battle. Now Xi has a double problem that internal and external communication must solve: as a strong ruler, which Xi considers himself to be, of course he only has strong – albeit subordinate – friends. So Xi doesn’t want to be seen with a loser in the war.
As a result, at the first face-to-face meeting between the two since the Olympics, in Uzbekistan in September, Putin has to roll in the dust and say that Russia would be happy to answer China’s “questions and concerns” regarding the “special mission.” At the same time, the Kremlin prince thanked China for the “balanced position” that China had taken with regard to the Ukraine war. China wanted to signal to the West that it was distancing itself from Putin.
Before the meeting of the two powerful people, even the Chinese ambassador to the USA announced that the UN charter, in which the sovereignty of all nations is anchored, is fully recognized and respected as the basis of international relations. Of course, the people in China don’t hear that, but the signal that goes out from this statement is aimed at Washington and its allies. It is supposed to mean a distancing from Putin’s war.
For Russia, Beijing has its own very different message: Li Zahnsu, China’s number three, the chairman of the powerful Standing Committee, pledged Beijing’s “support” to Russia during a visit to the Russian parliament at the same time. So far, no Chinese apparatchiks and top politicians have gone that far, an absolute novelty that should lead to unease in Berlin, London and Paris. Li also reiterated the view that the international community cornered Russia over Ukraine and virtually forced it into a war against Ukraine. However, the Chinese state agency Xinhua said only that there was “strategic coordination” between China and Russia.
The people in China and international observers did not hear anything about “support”. Something different was communicated to Russia than to Washington. At that moment, not even a knowledge of Chinese will help the state apparatus to figure it out. You also have to be able to speak Russian. Because the Russian state agency celebrated the unexpected encouragement from Beijing and trumpeted what Li said literally. Beijing neither confirmed nor denied the report by the Russian side.
It is clear that Beijing communicates differently to each actor in the conflict over the Ukraine war. Ruler Xi has no interest in leading the conflict to an end as a clear negotiator or middleman. This shows that another narrative that Beijing has already spread in the course of its fake climate enthusiasm in Paris is only intended to appease critics in the free world. It is the narrative that the People’s Republic wants to take a constructive place in world politics. However, the untruthful dodges that Beijing is currently using in the international arena point in the opposite direction. Neither peace in Ukraine nor international politics can be made with the People’s Republic.
Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian is currently working on a project on “digital cosmopolitanism” at the Internet Institute at Oxford University and the Faculty of Philosophy at New York University.
Alexander Görlach was a Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the USA and Cambridge University in England. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. He has recently published the following titles: “Red Alert: Why China’s Aggressive Foreign Policy in the Western Pacific Is Leading to a Global War” (Hoffmann
From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the New York Times. He lives in New York and Berlin.
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