for generations The Chinese people are told that the outside world is — often — an unsafe and disappointing place. Communist theorists teach that quarrels among foreigners are best understood as contests of power and self-interest. Official speeches and news reports relentlessly challenge the notion that the behavior of other countries is explained by moral values, no matter what the outside world says. China is an exception: a giant who loves peace and only wants to do good.
Instilling cynicism about the world is good for the party. Without it, February 4 could be a tricky anniversary for President Xi Jinping. A year since he declared that China and Russia enjoy an “unlimited friendship”, Vladimir Putin has launched a bloody aggression against Ukraine.
Russia’s brutality soon forced once-close partners such as Germany to declare Mr Putin a dangerous belligerent. Xi has more leeway because Russia is not a pariah in mainstream Chinese opinion. In part, propaganda and censorship explain why.Every night for nearly a year, the major evening news has blamed the U.S. and NATO The defense alliance has been accused of cornering Russia by expanding eastward. As recently as January 30, the foreign ministry in Beijing accused the United States of delaying the war and “making huge profits from the fighting” by sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University of China, said many Chinese who heard rumors of Russian war crimes suspected it was “fake news” fabricated by Ukraine and its Western allies, such as the alleged massacre of civilians in Buta.
In a way, more obvious things are at play. The party implies in its teachings that it is naive to ask whether governments are evil or good. Their influence on China is what matters most. Russia has huge armed forces and goods to sell, and shares China’s grudge against the US. The rulers of China, let alone the Chinese people, 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 threaten China in its East Asian backyard.Therefore, Russia hopes to successfully confront and divide the West and discredit it NATO And survived the sanctions imposed on it.
Ruthless indifference to Russia does not exactly equate to approving all of Putin’s behavior. Members of China’s foreign policy establishment, such as Professor Wang, have admitted to being frustrated by Russia’s annexation of vast 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 have to be admirable to be useful.
Heilongjiang province, in China’s frigid north, is a good place to observe this grim pragmatism. As China and the Soviet Union approached all-out war in the late Mao era, Red Guards ransacked an onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral in Harbin, a city founded more than 120 years ago as a railway hub by czarist troops and settlers. Today, Harbin positions the former cathedral as a romantic “European-style” tourist attraction. On a recent evening, inspectors bought a ticket and asked selfie tourists whether the war in Ukraine had changed their minds about Russia. Not quite, said two university students in 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 would then take the check to the north to the city of Heihe, which lies 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 drowned. British passports give access to the nearby Aihui Historical Museum (Russian citizens are “usually” not allowed in, museum guards admit), where a 69-meter panorama commemorates the horrific massacre. It shows Cossacks raping women, bayoneting Chinese into a river, and machine gunning people in the water. In conclusion, the museum documents centuries of Russian invasions. The text at the exit tells visitors the lesson to draw from this history: Try to make China and its military strong, don’t breed hatred. “If you’re weak, you’ll be bullied. If you’re behind, you’ll be beaten,” it advised.
Upstream of the museum stands the future hope of Heihe – the first cross-border river road bridge between China and Russia. It opened in the summer of 2022 after years of delays in Russia amid concerns about China dominating Russia’s sparsely populated Far East. “Of course” locals remember Russia’s past looting, says a woman whose shop sells Russian honey, chocolates and other souvenirs to Chinese tourists (or before covid controls locked down the city 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 who smokes with him denounces 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 development there, a third trader predicted, although cheap oil and gas from Russia should help China overall.He blames the West for Ukraine’s death because there is no NATO This small country would have lost to Russian weapons “a long time ago”. His focus on relative strength, rather than the merits of invasion, dims prospects for peacemaking. It’s a perfect fit for leaders in far-flung Beijing. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
A new drama reveals the truth about China (January 26)
Taking a Slow Train in China (January 19)
Many Chinese villagers appear ready to shake off covid-19 (January 12)