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Will China rebuild Ukraine? President Xi is more worried about Covid than war

The CCP can't predict the future (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)


April 1, 2022   4 mins

The readout from the Politburo meeting published by the Xinhua news agency on 28 March 2022 was the shortest in decades: just 100 characters or so. Apart from a statement of condolence for the tragic China Eastern plane crash a few weeks earlier, there was little discussion of detail: in an exclusive Xinhua scoop, it was revealed that “work of contemporary relevance” was discussed.

The tight-lipped statement didn’t mention Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. But that’s hardly surprising. For much of Europe, the outcome of the war is existential: all eyes are currently on China to see if it will back Putin. Just days before Russia’s invasion, Xi Jinping and Putin announced that the friendship between their two nations had “no limits” and “no forbidden areas of cooperation”. Yet in the weeks since, Xi has been distracted: he has far more pressing issues to worry about than war in far-off Ukraine.

While bombs rain down on Mariupol, Covid remains the main story in China. Much of the rest of world has opened up, including India, but China and Japan remain major outliers. This week, the mega-city of Shanghai, with a population nearly half that of the UK, is being locked down; first, its futuristic eastern zone of skyscrapers and towers, and next week, its western half defined by its British-style art deco waterfront, the Bund.

Stories of commuters emptying shelves in supermarkets fill the headlines, just as in Britain in spring 2020. Hong Kong’s politics is no longer dominated by the struggle for democracy. Instead, public anger, still more freely expressed than in the mainland, has attacked Chief Executive Carrie Lam for a policy that has seen the city isolated from the world and the Chinese mainland for weeks, but still ravaged by growing deaths, particularly among the unvaccinated and elderly.

The economic and social turmoil that Covid has brought to China has shaped its reaction to Ukraine. It is certainly true that China will seek to strengthen its geopolitical position where it can — as indeed does every other major power. However, right now, any decisions on Ukraine will almost certainly be filtered through a domestic lens first and foremost. What will any decision do to the economy? How will it affect the march toward a third term in office for Xi, a decision unprecedented in the modern era but likely to be achieved this autumn at the Party Congress? These are hard questions to answer: no wonder that Xinhua readout was so short.

China’s relationship with Ukraine is part of the equation. Since 2019, China has been Ukraine’s largest single trading partner. And Ukraine is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, along with Russia. For years, Ukraine was proof that European powers at odds with the EU could find friends in Beijing; Serbia being another example.

China also imports grain from Ukraine, not in a way that makes it dependent on that supply in the way that some Middle Eastern countries are, but usefully nonetheless. And it has invested heavily in projects in Ukraine such as a metro rail system and wind energy farms, which it would presumably want to keep going in the event of a peace deal. A settlement that allows China to restore Ukraine to its existing place in its economic matrix would be welcome; whether Putin will permit that is another matter.

There are also small, but significant opportunities for China to burnish its global image in its handling of the Ukraine crisis. It has plenty of peacekeeping experience via the UN, and actually has more peacekeeping troops trained than any other permanent member of the UN security council. In theory, then, its troops could be part of a UN force that keeps order, assuming that Russian soldiers would be unacceptable to the Ukrainians.

However, this remains unlikely, even if the UN does play a central role in any potential settlement. Past experience shows that China is uncomfortable with the political aspects of peacekeeping — particularly post-civil conflict resolution in sub-Saharan Africa — as it involved bringing civil society and opposition groups into authorised dialogue with government, something which China does not do at home.

Overall, China is much more comfortable talking about physical and economic reconstruction, as it did when it offered to build roads for the Taliban regime last year. But cash alone is not going to settle the Ukraine situation. As its relative distance from the current talks in Istanbul have shown, China is not yet ready to step up as a prominent mediator with a democratic state, just as Western actors have sometimes struggled in the past to deal with hybrid or semi-authoritarian states.

There is another area where China may use Ukraine for political rethinking: on Taiwan. It is far too simple to read Taiwan as a direct analogy to Ukraine, and Beijing does not do so. It has been thinking about the Taiwan issue for years, and regards it as a matter of internal politics, not an external breach of sovereignty. However, one revelation from the past month should surely have set alarm bells ringing: the massive miscalculation by Russia’s political and military elites about the nationalist sentiment and will for resistance of the Ukrainian people.

The case of Russia suggests that a propaganda echo chamber does not produce good intelligence; if you only listen to your own propaganda, you can’t be surprised when it turns out to be wrong. There are thoughtful voices in the Chinese foreign policy world, muted but audible, that have suggested that China should take its own rhetoric about the decadence and weakness of the West with a pinch of the delicious weijing that makes much Chinese food so sharp.

The Chinese Communist Party has reportedly introduced a programme in selected universities and schools to educate children on the correct approach to understanding the “tragedy” of the Ukraine situation. The overall message is that the crisis is the fault of the West, and Chinese sympathy should take Russia’s feelings into account. Yet the programme still pulls its punches, and it’s still a long way from all-out support for Moscow.

According to the South China Morning Post, one university pledged to provide “positive guidance to ignite their learning passions as the Russia-Ukraine situation remains a hot topic for students,” while another addressed “the fundamental causes to Ukraine’s national tragedy.” But a clear direction on who is right and who is wrong is singularly lacking.

Like the rest of the world, China is going through a period of maximal uncertainty. Just as in recent years the British have adopted the term “permacrisis” to describe the endless rolling news cycle, the Chinese now speak of the world “going through major changes not seen for a century” (“bainian weiyou zhi da bianju”). China may have a five-year plan for its economy, but right now, regarding Ukraine, it appears that Beijing is as uncertain as the rest of us as to what the next five minutes might bring.


Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism (Harvard, 2020).


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Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

A better article for being tentative as opposed to some that fix on a point of view too easily. China is at least coldly rational whilst Putin’s Russia is a basket case of dangerously irrational self pity and resentment.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Not sure how planning to invade Taiwan, using one of the most complex military operations–an amphibious landing–is “coldly rational.”
Nor is trusting the fate of over a billion people to the decisions of a single leader.
Xi is arguably far less delusional than Putin. But every regime needs people who can openly criticize it–and alternative leaders who can step in when egregious mistakes are made, a la the Politburo and Khrushchev after Cuba.
Otherwise, one-man rule inevitably leads to disaster.

Landin Rochard
Landin Rochard
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Besides some exceptions like Tucker Carlson in the USA or Sud Radio in France, the kind of one sided narrative one hears in US-EU on Russia doesn’t reflect the self proclaimed freedom/democratic credentials of the west!! Shall we put the onus on the west too by saying: “The propaganda echo chamber does not produce good intelligence; if you only listen to your own propaganda, you can’t be surprised when it turns out to be wrong.”!!

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

That’s CIA propaganda. I recognize it because they’re making the exact same claims about Putin as they’d ID trying to undermine the Trump presidency.

Landin Rochard
Landin Rochard
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Besides some exceptions like Tucker Carlson in the USA or Sud Radio in France, the kind of one sided narrative one hears in US-EU on Russia doesn’t reflect the self proclaimed freedom/democratic credentials of the west!! Shall we put the onus on the west too by saying: “The propaganda echo chamber does not produce good intelligence; if you only listen to your own propaganda, you can’t be surprised when it turns out to be wrong.”!!

Lizzie J
Lizzie J
2 years ago

The rigour of the Shanghai lockdown, entirely due to China’s failure to vaccinate effectively, is indicative of how little people matter. My godson is locked into his tower block due to one case, tested every day and unable even to take the dog out for a whatsit. And it’s a big dog … I dread to think what will happen if he tests positive (my godson, not the dog).

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Lizzie J

Surely he could sell the dog on e- bay?
I thought the Chinese were rather partial to dog, particularly boiled with noodles.

April Fool’s day anyone?

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Ah yes – Steamboat breakfast puppy in Bugis Street Singapore. Just mouthwatering even after all those years. Its fair taken my mind back.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Lizzie J

“….is indicative of how little people matter.”
Sounds like a new slogan. Little People Matter!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Orson Welles would disagree!

Terry Davies
Terry Davies
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Yes, I do! All 5’4″ of me!

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 years ago
Reply to  Lizzie J

It has nothing to do with vaccination. The vaccines are ineffective against omicron. As in the west, lockdowns are simply a form of totalitarian control.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

Intelligent Chinese are now keenly aware of how one-man rule has enabled the Ukrainian catastrophe.
Even if Putin’s intel people sincerely believed the Ukrainians would fold immediately, he should have encouraged opposing views. If a nation ever sleepwalked its way into war, it is Russia in 2022.
Like intelligent Russians, however, intelligent Chinese will probably be no more able to prevent similar miscalculations by Xi’s regime. Still worse, flights to Turkey may be limited.
It’s as if the post-Mao China of Deng and Chou has evaporated.

Friedrich Tellberg
Friedrich Tellberg
2 years ago

Thank you. There are indeed signs that China’s leaders have not decided yet upon what to think of the war in Ukraine and how to act and that this is their way to let it show. Something unusual to us in the West.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

China bourgeoisie are an unhappy at present and risk averse. Nothing to be seen here

.for the moment.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

The fact that China has largely, if not completely, sided with an outright aggressor, is not to its credit.

China did use to have a reasonably effective method, albeit undemocratic, for changing its leadership, which was anyway to a significant extent collective. With Xi’s rise to absolute power, that distinction has lost most of its meaning. China has reverted to becoming, as it was under Mao, a tyranny dependent on the whims and interests of a single individual. It also heavily represses any information or opinion on the world of which it does not approve.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

I’m obviously not praising China. Xi might get a third term and develop an Emperor syndrome and they still harbour deep resentment for the ‘100 years of humiliation’. Russia, China, North Korea, all glowering away with huge chips on shoulders.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Justified ‘chips on their shoulders’????

Lisa Irvin
Lisa Irvin
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

Perhaps but a chip on the shoulder doesn’t lead to wise decision making.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

I still prefer my chips with malt vinegar.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

I was about to ask whether we in the West are allowed to have chips on our shoulders like the rest of the world, when I realised that of course some of us are expected to.

Last edited 2 years ago by Colin Elliott
Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

You can carry the chip only if you qualify for marginalized or victim status. In the US the chips will soon be issued via the federal government through SAAP (Supplemental Attitude Assistance Program) administered by HHS. Apply on-line, Form 88234, available at http://www.HHS.gov.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ray Zacek
Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 years ago

The western powers have chosen to push Russia, and possibly Ukraine closer to China. Perhaps they’re indifferent to strengthening China’s influence because the western governments profit from China and are busy promoting a Chinese style social credit scheme to control their own populations.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

I wonder if the CCP might now be more aware of the risks of one man rule evolving into demagogic misrule, and maybe block Xi’s reappointment.
Wise Chinese know the very long game suits them and Xi is starting, like Putin, to try and achieve a legacy in his own lifetime – Chinese are much more tolerant of patience.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Stewart
TERRY JESSOP
TERRY JESSOP
2 years ago

China “has been thinking about the Taiwan issue for years” and regards “it as a matter of internal politics, not an external breach of sovereignty. However, one revelation from the past month should surely have set alarm bells ringing: the massive miscalculation by Russia’s political and military elites about the nationalist sentiment and will for resistance of the Ukrainian people”.
Xi Jinping may well be as ruthless an authoritarian as Putin, but I will wager that he is a better chess or poker player than Putin, and quite capable of working out the odds. He is very certainly giving lots of deep thought as to whether an invasion of Taiwan could be pulled off, and my guess is that for the moment he will be drawing back from the brink. Taiwan may have a population of only 23 odd million people, but no doubt Xi has noted how the Ukrainians have demonstrated that the population of a country under dire threat can surprise with the vehemence of their resistance. Not only that, but Taiwan is not just a short drive across a land border. It’s miles and miles across open sea. Lots can go wrong. As much as Xi would no doubt love to roll the dice, my guess is that he won’t.
As for Covid lockdown in Shanghai and Hong Kong, it is not just a case of mismanagement. Despite recent protestations to the contrary by the Chinese vaccine manufacturers that “our vaccines work really well, honestly”, the reality is probably that they don’t.