China’s Murky Position on Ukraine

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China responds to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Hong Kong grapples with a spiraling omicron outbreak, and the U.S. Department of Justice brings an end to the much-maligned China Initiative.

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Where Does China Stand on Ukraine?

After a few days of relative uncertainty, China’s line on Russian aggression toward Ukraine appears to have hardened into a strong anti-Western position—at least for the moment. At a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press briefing on Wednesday, spokesperson Hua Chunying denounced Western actions—she called the United States “the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine”—and seemed to tacitly support Russia.

The step came after some senior figures, including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun, released statements that avoided assigning blame in the crisis and reasserted the right to national sovereignty. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Chinese officials were uncomfortable with how Washington saw the Feb. 4 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a sign that Beijing stood with Moscow.

Some analysts, such as the Stimson Center’s Yun Sun, argue that Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine has caught China off guard, after it dismissed the buildup as a bluff and Western intelligence as deceptive. If that’s true, China’s confused response makes sense. The gulf between rhetoric and reality in Chinese officialdom means that Beijing often doesn’t know how seriously to take other powers’ moves. (To be sure, this problem is hardly unique to Chinese intelligence.)

In that case, Wednesday’s more pro-Russian tone may indicate that China has decided to live with Russian actions and prioritize a highly useful alliance, or that officials have reason to think that the current troop deployments are as far as Putin is going to go. The latter scenario would be China’s ideal: creating trouble for the West that doesn’t risk a wider war and the economic disruption that could come with it.

But there could also be a split between officials whose main concern is China’s relationships with other powers and those who are driven more by how the ideological environment affects their own advancement. The first group tends to be made up of experienced diplomats with steady careers who have spent more time outside China and converse with their foreign counterparts. The second group tends to be younger, media-focused, and reliant on Xi-era nationalism to drive their own careers forward.

All of this could reflect a generational shift. Hua, the foreign ministry spokesperson, may reflect this trend: She has become increasingly aggressive toward Western media, posting so-called wolf warrior memes on social media. Hua and Zhao Lijian, another official who is outspoken on Twitter, made their careers in the 2000s and 2010s, when Russia was seen as a steady ally against the West. Meanwhile, older figures came of age in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split, when Russia was China’s main opponent.

This second, younger group may change their stance on the situation in Ukraine if a clear word comes down from the top. But, for all the short-term concerns about further damaging China’s relationship with the West, it seems unlikely that Beijing will sacrifice or even strain what has been a productive alliance with Moscow. China’s eventual official line is likely to be closer to the directive accidentally leaked on one site: post only pro-Russian content and delete any pro-Western material.

The way that Russia has treated the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as supposedly independent republics creates some problems for China, however: The idea of separatist republics disrupts Beijing’s line on Taiwan and on sovereignty in general. If this state can separate, why can’t Taiwan or Xinjiang? The Chinese leadership will resolve this contradiction by simply ignoring it, and I suspect they assume that Russia will annex the breakaway states anyway.

Sanctions are a more genuine worry for China, particularly secondary sanctions for supporting Russia. Despite the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent politics, the Chinese economy and the lives of the Chinese elite remain closely linked to the United States. Dual messaging from China is likely: public support of Russia while at the same time back-channeling to the United States that the support isn’t serious, as may have happened in the recent phone call between Wang, the foreign minister, and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

The real test of China’s position on the Ukraine issue may be if it comes up for a vote at the United Nations Security Council. Beijing won’t ever approve any anti-Russia measures, but an abstention from a vote would signal its unhappiness. However, it is more likely that China will continue to provide Russia with a convenient way to avoid the worst impact of sanctions and that state media will remain pro-Moscow.

Hong Kong’s spiraling outbreak. The number of COVID-19 patients is rapidly overwhelming Hong Kong’s limited facilities as the city struggles to cope with the omicron variant. On Wednesday, Hong Kong set a new daily record of 8,674 new cases. Although the city hasn’t gone into full lockdown, it has introduced tight social restrictions. Residents are staying indoors not only out of fear of the virus but also out of fear of the quarantine facilities. Mass testing is the next step, with the region’s entire population of 7.5 million people set to be tested three times.

Hong Kong’s outbreak has widened divisions between the public and the government, which is seen as sticking to a “zero COVID-19” strategy under pressure from the mainland. But the city could become a laboratory for how to move away from the policy while keeping deaths relatively low; unfortunately, that is made difficult by the city’s surprisingly low vaccination rate. The latest outbreak has prompted a rush to get jabbed, but official pressure to use Chinese-made vaccines previously left many Hong Kongers suspicious.

Chained woman’s saga continues. Despite significant censorship, the case of a woman seen chained to a wall in Xuzhou, China, continues to consume online forums—forcing attention from officials. The woman’s story has emerged, reflecting a common horror in rural China: She was born in Yunnan in 1977, married at 18 and divorced at 20, and allegedly trafficked upon her return to her home village.

Eventually, she was sold to a family in Xuzhou and forced to marry their son, with whom she has eight children. The local government has announced that her husband and some relatives have been arrested, eight low-level officials were fired, and that there will be a provincewide crackdown on human trafficking and abuse.

But public concerns remain: While investigating the case, online sleuths found another potential trafficking victim. Others have shared fears about the treatment of women in China and pointed to the sharp contrast between the Xuzhou woman’s life and the lives of young Olympians such as Eileen Gu.

Pro-natalist policies. The northeastern province of Heilongjiang has unveiled a plan to boost birthrates after losing 16 percent of its population in the last decade. China’s northeast was once the industrial heartland, but it has suffered in recent decades, falling into a long-term recession and seeing widespread population losses amid the country’s general demographic crisis.

Chinese officials recently announced they will attempt to reduce the country’s high abortion rates, although it’s unclear if this will be done by coercive means or by wider education in birth control. Heilongjiang has promised more incentives for parents—but there’s a long way to go given the relative costs of raising a child in China are some of the highest in the world.

U.S. rethinks China Initiative. The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it is ending the Trump administration-era China Initiative, which nominally targeted espionage cases but was accused of racism and overzealous charges. U.S. Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen said in the announcement, “I have concluded that this initiative is not the right approach. And instead, the current threat landscape demands a broader approach.”

Scientists in particular will welcome the move, but it’s unclear exactly what will replace the initiative or how Chinese Americans who were unfairly targeted will be compensated.

Old Friends of China. This week, the Chinese internet was briefly consumed by the censorship of 1990s sitcom Friends in its new official streaming deal in the country. Censors targeted LGBTQ content in particular, with all references to main character Ross’s ex-wife’s sexuality cut from the show. That keeps with the Chinese government’s growing homophobia, but censoring Friends is particularly symbolic because the show has been hugely popular in China as a model of liberated life and sexuality.

The new censorship points to an odd paradox: The march of the internet has created more room for censorship in China, not less—as was once widely predicted. When pirated DVDs were the norm, supposedly forbidden content was widely available, but now that content is controlled by centralized streaming services, and the Great Firewall is higher than ever.

Education giant posts $876 million loss. New Oriental, once a giant of Chinese private education services whose success was celebrated in a hit movie, has posted a massive loss for March-November 2021—compared with a $229 million profit in the same period in 2020. The losses are a result of the ongoing crackdown on private education, suddenly targeted by the government last year in an attempt to reduce financial burdens on parents. It’s a reminder that ideology can completely shatter even thriving businesses in China overnight: New Oriental has slashed at least 60,000 jobs.

Someday I’ll compile all the things there’s an ongoing crackdown on in China right now. It’s a big list.

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