China’s refusal to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused consternation in Europe and threatens to sour relations with one of its biggest trading partners. Even as Beijing portrays itself as a neutral party and potential mediator, the government has declined to join US sanctions against Russia and continues to blame Washington for the conflict. Western leaders should not have been shocked. China’s rapprochement with Russia goes back years, long before the “no limits” partnership proclaimed by President Xi Jinping and Putin on the eve of last month’s Winter Olympics.
It forms part of a wider strategic shift that reflects Beijing’s changing perception of its participation in the rules-based global order, from a mutually beneficial arrangement that helped enable rapid economic development to a US-dominated mechanism dedicated to containing China’s rise. This seismic turn, largely since Xi became president in 2013, has not been hidden. Several symbolic moments stand out in signaling China’s growing hostility to the values of liberal democracy, and determination to fashion a global system more favorable to the interests of autocracies. These are three examples:
1. Document No. 9
In 2013, Communist Party leaders circulated a communique among cadres that inveighed against “Western” values such as constitutional democracy, human rights, civil society and freedom of the press, which were portrayed as tools used by anti-China forces to undermine the party’s authority and weaken its rule. The document, officially titled “A Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” became known by the number given to it by the issuing party office.
Document No. 9 foreshadowed an intensifying crackdown on human rights lawyers and defenders, tighter controls on media outlets, diminishing space for freedom of expression on the internet and among academics, and an exodus of foreign non-governmental organizations. Xi had once been the focus of hopes that he would be a liberalizing influence, at least in market economics. Document No. 9 was a key signal that his administration would instead pursue a return to Communist orthodoxy, seeking to reassert the party’s grip on society and the economy.
The US’s five-decade policy of engagement was premised partly on the bet that China would become more liberal as it developed — that, if not turning into a multi-party democracy itself, the country would increasingly come to embrace the norms of the democratic world. Document No. 9 showed unambiguously that the opposite was possible: that, as China became richer and more powerful, it could become more antagonistic to the foundational values of the postwar order.
2. The 2015 Military Parade
To mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, China held its biggest-ever military parade in Beijing. Putin appeared alongside Xi in Tiananmen Square; they had stood together in Moscow several months earlier to commemorate the Allied victory in Europe. Most Western leaders stayed away, having boycotted the Russian ceremony to protest Putin’s annexation of Crimea the previous year.
China’s WWII legacy is complicated. The country’s suffering and contribution to the war effort are underappreciated in the West. China lost at least 14 million lives, second only to the Soviet Union, and fought for longer than any other Allied power, having resisted Japan’s invasion since 1937 (some date the start of the war to Tokyo’s seizure of Manchuria in 1931.) China’s role was relatively overlooked partly because of decades of Communist reluctance. The Nationalist Party ruled during the war and led resistance against the Japanese, only to be overthrown by the Communists in 1949. Acknowledging that fact meant giving recognition to an ideological foe. The 2015 parade was part of an attempt to craft a narrative that pays fitting tribute to China’s sacrifice.
Yet the government still views this period through an ideological lens that contrasts in subtle though important ways with the West. Generally referred to in China as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, the conflict is also known by another term: the World Anti-Fascist War. This unobjectionable-looking title was coined by the Moscow-based Communist International in the 1930s and adopted by Mao Zedong toward the end of WWII to signal his allegiance to Joseph Stalin, the Australian academic John Fitzgerald wrote in Cadre Country: How China became the Chinese Communist Party. The term brackets the two countries as comrades in a wider conflict in which “Great Britain and the United States were enemies of Soviet Russia and China no less than the countries that actually invaded them,” Fitzgerald wrote.
To most Europeans, with no ambivalence over WWII’s meaning, Putin’s claim that he aims to “denazify” Ukraine looks transparently absurd. From the massing of troops on the border, to the purported concern of protecting ethnic Russians and the staging of false-flag incidents, it’s Russia’s actions that eerily resemble Hitler’s Germany. Yet seen from a Chinese Communist Party viewpoint, there is a logic to the case. As shown by Putin’s presence alongside Xi in 2015, their countries are partners in a decades-long struggle against the imperialist capitalist nations. It’s clear where Beijing’s sympathies lie — even if it cannot declare them openly.
3. Hong Kong
The former British colony was the place in the world where China’s Communist system intersected most visibly with the open, liberal democratic values of the West. The city’s semi-autonomous existence after its 1997 return to China showed how a free and pluralist society could flourish under the cloak of an authoritarian government. In this sense, Hong Kong was a mirror and a microcosm of how a politically unreformed China was welcomed into the global capitalist system.
So the end of this enlightened, mutually beneficial arrangement is hugely significant in what it says about China’s perception of the chances for peaceful coexistence between two systems built on radically different world views. Hong Kong society has changed almost beyond recognition since Beijing imposed a national security law on the territory two years ago.
Beijing had its reasons to intervene. Hong Kong was convulsed by pro-democracy protests in 2019 that sometimes turned violent and, rather than seeing these as the predictable reaction to a steady diminishment of the city’s freedoms, the Party viewed them as an attempt to destabilize China by US-controlled agents. The clampdown went far beyond what was necessary to restore order. It is a whole-of-society rectification movement reminiscent of the Party’s early rule in the mainland, in keeping with the ethos of Document No. 9.
The antipathy demonstrated to liberal values in Hong Kong is instructive when considering why Beijing hasn’t been a more forceful defender of the global rules-based order in Ukraine. China’s economy depends on this Western construct, but the Party has no love for its principles. Countries should bear this in mind when considering how Beijing may refashion the global system in the future, when and if it has the power to do so.