The Impacts of Ukrainian Invasion on China Part I - Soviet on the Outside, Qing on the Inside

With the recent invasion of Ukraine undertaken by Russia, one spot of foreign policy challenges that the world needs to still wake up to is China. There are a large number of reasons why Russia has significance for China, and it is not merely about economy or increasing global isolation.

Soviet Union, modern Russia's precursor, was an ideological inspiration and mentor of the Chinese Communist Party till the death of Joseph Stalin, following which they parted ways. Of course, even after the Soviet collapse, there continues to be interest in Russian affairs in a variety of ways.

A 1949 Poster Hailing the Sino-Soviet Peace and Friendship Treaty. The Putonghua reads as follows:
"The Sino-Soviet Alliance for Friendship and Mutual Assistance promotes enduring world peace"


This is the first part of a multi-part series as to why the latest Russian - Ukrainian challenge carries multiple implications for China.


PART I - SOVIET ON THE OUTSIDE, QING ON THE INSIDE – MAKING SENSE OF THE CHINESE PROPAGANDA

Global Times, the mouthpiece on international affairs of the Chinese Communist Party, interestingly has been one of the few papers to have highlighted the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It conducted an interview with an expert scholar, Zheng Yongnian of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen campus, to understand the lessons for ‘today’s China’; however, it became an opportunity to compare the US’ current state with the Soviet Union.

The Lesson Internalized in the Chinese System

What is fascinating is the emphasis on deriving the right lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the key lessons over the decades has been the need to provide economic growth and good government. The failure to change and adapt to the modern times that Zheng has highlighted in this interview does not seem very different from the standard party line in fact. Contrast these two statements, one from a 2013 Diplomat article quoting Li Jingjie, a Soviet expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the other from the interview:

“It was the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) that collapsed first.  CPSU leaders did not understand economics and they steadfastly avoided reform because they dogmatically believed in their model.  The CPSU  never renewed itself and did not adapt with the times… In seventy-plus years, there was no development of democratic politics.  Once they began, under Gorbachev, they were too late and the reform strategy was erroneous – which was the precipitating cause of the collapse.”

Li Jingjie

“It should be noted that the Russian civilization and model does not necessarily lead to failure. Many reasons have been summarized these years for the dissolution of Soviet Union in terms of politics, economy and the influence by the West, but in my opinion, the fundamental reason is the Soviet Union's inability to keep up with the times.”

Zheng Yongian

What is interesting however is the subsequent lessons that have been drawn from it. If one were to go by the interview, Zheng essentially advocates for a relative degree of openness towards the outside world, albeit economic in nature, as essential to the survival of the Communist set up in China. This is where till the advent of Xi Jinping, there was a semblance towards openness. To that end, the party high rankers and intellectuals in China were keen in the idea of some form of openness and transparency even as early as the Gorbachev era of the late nineteen-eightees, as scholars have argued. This however translated not into democratic thinking as one would have expected, but into greater sensitivity towards public opinion.

The economic openness argument continues to stay strong however, even if couched in terms of a big market that offers ample opportunities. This talk about as strong middle class is an acknowledgment without saying the obvious - the roots of the level of economic prosperity that China has achieved because of being part of the global supply hub; however, it also is perhaps a reflection of the fear of falling out of the supply chain without being able to make that transition that it wants to make -  a far more important role for “domestic circulation” and self-sufficiency, and future economic growth to be driven by, domestic consumption rather than exports.

China – a Civilizational Competitor or Not?

While comparing the Soviet Union’s fundamental structure with that of Tsarist Russia is perhaps not entirely wrong, it is interesting to note that the interview posits Russia as a civilizational competitor, and not China. This is in many ways a departure from stated party position. Chinese Communist Party, particularly in the Xi Jinping, has more often than not talked of the alternative that China offers, which wrapped in the civilizational robes, clearly alludes in the same direction.

As Alison Kaufman has pointed out in her 2018 piece, the shift in China’s global status allows Xi to reevaluate traditional Chinese civilization in relation to Western civilization, and in relation to China’s own socialist aspirations. As per Kaufman, the concept of a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is a kind of signaling, an assertion that the Chinese civilization has presented to the world – a successful alternative to the west which stems from its civilizational past. In this view, the CCP is a natural successor to that past, and this CCP led China can create a “community of common destiny”, with China in the leadership.

This too is a message that seeps through the party despite its internal differences. For instance, when one hears Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, talk about China’s endeavor “to foster a new form of international relations and build a community with a shared future for mankind”, the fog of vagueness in the message gets cleared by the actions on the ground, particularly the rhetoric it engages in with respect to ‘Western values’.  This is a core belief of the Communist Party of China – as Wang Tingyou’s write up in the “Red Flag Manuscript” journal of the party states, the ‘common values’ espoused by the party need not be the same as the ‘universal values’ espoused by the west. To this end, Wang’s following remarks epitomize much of the consensus on thinking in the party:

"Common value" has nothing in common with the so-called "universal value" in the West. All consensus values, including the common value of all mankind, are based on the recognition of each other’s special values. Therefore, they are all relative, developing, and changing. They will change with changes in conditions, scope, and time, not absolute, permanent, eternal, and immutable… For another example, peace has always been the common aspiration of mankind. In the eyes of some people, this is a "universal value." Reality tells us that in a world where there are class antagonisms, conflicts of interest, and hegemonism, this kind aspiration simply cannot be realized, since violence and war are still the fundamental means by which Western hegemony forces defend their own interests and plunder the people of other countries.”

References to Qing China – an Internal Criticism?

What perhaps gains the most attention is the reference to Qing dynasty China in the interview, and an attempt to create an analogy with modern day United States. It is a distinctly cultural reference that many would fail to understand, simply because the memory of the Qing era China is a stark one in the popular culture to this day. Ming era China and Tang Era are seen as the aspirations, while Qing perhaps remains best ingrained as one of weakness and disaster despite it being a part of only the last few decades of a centuries old system.

A great example of this memory remains in the expat Chinese settling in South-east Asia under British rule as labourers forming secret societies, many of which sought to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Never mind that the Qing had created the modern China’s boundaries now claimed by the CCP; the aspiration is to pander to the largest ethnic group of Hans who still carry remnants of the anti-Manchu sentiment birthed during the late Qing period. The ultimate aim to ‘oppose Qing and restore Ming’ (fanqing fuming 反清复明) i.e. to overthrow a backward system to build a new  one in order to prevent China from being colonized by foreigners was one fitting into the Communist ideology, for it talks about colonization and perpetuates a memory of ‘humiliation’ of the Chinese people by outsiders.

The use of the analogy of the misguided elite however to criticize the Americans seems to reveal more than what meets the eye. Is there some kind of warning to the elite of the Chinese Communist Party to toe the official line? Given the lessons that the Soviet experience has to offer in the official Chinese memory, the aim might have very well been at those camps opposed to the Xi faction, many of whom in the past were following a gradual path of opening up as was seen in the case of former premier Wen Jiabao. The particular reference to Qing dynasty also talks about ‘outsiders’ being the reasons for oppression. Given Xi’s antecedents as an out and out princeling who see access to power as a natural right, is this an indication also on the populist factions who come from families of less privilege, as is the case with his premier Li Keqiang? After all, Li Keqiang continually takes a strong contrarian position on the economy. Prosperity being the bedrock on which Xi bases his right to rule, any challenge would be seen as a crossing of the line. With Xi now giving himself the highest authority in the political order of China to become the third of a pantheon containing Mao Tse Tung and Deng Xiaoping, any deviation would henceforth become intolerable, much in the fashion of typical courtroom politics.

What is in the near future is a guess in all likelihood; however, there are some patterns in this interview that reflect the broader changes happening within China and its mindset. One thing is certain – Xi’s China is determined to not be the next Soviet Union.  

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