Russia-China relations: From the Ukrainian issue to Chinese cinema

Russia-China relations: From the Ukrainian issue to Chinese cinema

By Pavel Volkov

Olga Bonch-Osmolovskaya, Candidate of Historical Sciences, researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, senior lecturer at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (St. Petersburg), head of the Laboratorium Orientale project, talks about Russian-Chinese relations in the context of the Special military operation, China’s local and global goals, mutual influence, as well as the opportunities and problems of the “forced” turn to the East

Olga, who are the Russians now for China – an ally or a temporary travelling companion?

An ally. In the geopolitical dimension, Russia is China’s key ally. It works the other way round as well: China is our ally in all respects.

China needs Russia as an effective ally on the world stage, and in this sense, China will certainly oppose attempts by the EU and the US to exclude Russia from Western politics (as can be seen by the Russian side’s demonstrative non-invitation to events where issues directly related to us are discussed). At the same time, Russia’s excessive strengthening is also, of course, a complicated issue, just as China is in no hurry to sacrifice its interests and quarrel with the West. Over the past two years, we have seen that China has positioned itself as a peacemaker on the Ukrainian issue, without obvious overreactions, but firmly supporting Russia.

Olga Bonch-Osmolovskaya

Recently, Ukraine was also discussed in Davos (military support, options for a peace agreement), but the main conclusion remained the same: no peace agreement can be reached without Russia’s participation. This is also obvious for China, and it is indicative that the Chinese side refused to participate in these negotiations. In this respect, China’s position has been stable since the beginning of the conflict, and it is hard to call it anything other than an allied position.

Chinese approach to the conflict around Ukraine

Is China ready to talk about Zelensky’s peace formula?

China is not ready to talk to Europe or anyone else solely on the basis of the peace formula that Zelensky proposes, if only because in his version of the peace formula cannot be accepted by Russia in any way. And, accordingly, it is hard to imagine that China could support such a conflict resolution option.

Here it is important to pay attention to the visit of Li Hui, who has been to Russia, Ukraine, the EU headquarters and a number of European countries. This man has huge ties with Russia. He worked in the USSR and Europe Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, then in the embassy of the PRC in the USSR and the Russian Federation (after 1991 he served as First Secretary of the embassy in the Russian Federation, and since 2009 he has been Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for many years). He is an active supporter of productive Russian-Chinese relations, so the choice of Li Hui as the head of China’s delegation for the settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is certainly not accidental.

The second point is why China has now become more active after 10 months of diplomatic calm. I think they also feel a certain calm before the storm – the Russian presidential election, the results of which have not been officially recognised by the Federal Republic of Germany and against the backdrop of which a phantasmagoria is going on in Europe with discussions about the introduction of troops into Ukraine or the border zones, etc. Yes, of course, Macron has been condemned so far with his suggestion of troop deployment, but the very fact that such an option is already being discussed is justifiably worrying for China.

So Li Hui wasn’t mainly travelling to Ukraine. He stayed in Kiev for literally a few hours, arrived at noon, left in the evening – he met with Zelensky’s head of office Yermak, the foreign minister, a few other officials, and that was it. Nothing was discussed with Zelensky. Li Hui was travelling primarily to Russia and the EU, because if NATO and Russia clash openly, how should China act? The prospect of war with NATO turns the Russia-Ukraine conflict from a conditionally localised problem to a global one for China, and it is trying to do everything possible to avoid a world war while defending its strategic interests.

Doesn’t it appear that, trying to avoid a world war, China is curtsying towards Ukraine?

I don’t think so. China is not making any steps towards Ukraine and its interests. In official statements, Li Hui’s visit to Ukraine was evaluated in the form of four characters meaning “frank” and “friendly”. In diplomatic language, this means that the parties expressed their positions in a friendly atmosphere, that is, they talked about what everyone already knows, and then parted ways.

I see no reason to say that China is somehow changing its attitude towards Russia in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Now another package of anti-Russian sanctions has been introduced, and Beijing has protested against it, against the abuse of the Ukrainian factor in order to justify unilateral sanctions. Moreover, several Chinese companies, which are suspected of supplying Russia with dual-use products, have fallen under these sanctions. And this is even more than a hint from the US and EU that China is involved in the conflict.

Can sanctions affect China’s position? Could it happen that at some point it will become unprofitable for China to support Russia, given its trade relations with the EU?

It’s too early to talk about this, so far these are more like trial balloons. We don’t know to what extent the EU and the US will pressure China in this regard. So far, I see that the EU is still relatively cautious and makes more loud statements than real practical steps. A few Chinese companies have fallen under sanctions, and it is hard to say now what will happen if several hundred companies are targeted (and whether the West will go for it). Everything depends on a lot of factors: on Russia’s military successes, on the degree of economic and ideological co-operation.

It should be understood that China needs us as the only serious and principled ideological ally. We often say, and absolutely rightly so, that we need China as a trade and economic partner. Indeed, after ten thousand sanctions against Russia, we need China, but what we can give China is no less significant for China. After all, no West will support the Chinese line of transition from unipolarity to multipolarity, but Russia will support it in every possible way. Besides, let’s not forget the trade war with the US and the very real interest of Chinese companies in Russian markets.

Has Russia become dependent on China now?

Many people say that by breaking away from the West and turning to the East, Russia has exchanged a sword for a soap and found itself in the same dependence on China.

Indeed, many people ask this question, but we need to look at each sphere separately. Economically, China now has huge advantages and can insist on preferential treatment for Chinese investors and favourable conditions for trade in general. Here it is important not to forget about our other partners and the protection of the Russian market. In other spheres, in the intellectual space, in particular, in the ideological space, I do not see a strong influence of China (interaction, yes, but not dependence). Of course, one cannot fail to notice that the Chinese have developed a huge number of ideologues over the past decade, which are gaining a certain global popularity every year: “Chinese Dream”, “One Belt, One Road”, “Community of the Common Destiny of Mankind”. These are Xi Jinping’s projects, which are now actually being put into practice and more and more countries are being attracted to them. China has its own political line, which it is developing very successfully thanks to economic growth.

Thus, the ideologist Zhang Weiwei, who led the Chinese delegation at the recent Multipolarity Forum in Moscow, has been saying for many years on all platforms of the world that China does not need democracy in the Western version, because Chinese political traditions are absolutely self-sufficient and the one-party system is the only possible option for governing a billion-dollar China. How to do it any other way at all is incomprehensible. And everyone, in principle, points out that in this sense China is a really interesting and successful example of an alternative.

It is usually said that democratic countries are also economically developed, that there is a correlation between Western parliamentarism and the level of development. But in China, it is not democracy in the Western sense that has led to unprecedented economic prosperity.

And that is what gives China a very strong base to argue for the correctness of its ideology. In this respect, although we also have strong ideologues and actively oppose a unipolar world, it is more difficult for Russia to back up its position with successful economic and technological expansion in the world, as China does.

There are objective reasons for this…

For the Chinese themselves, the answer to the question of why this happens is obvious – there was no coup in China. In 1989, during the events in Tiananmen Square, the entire West trumpeted that China had run over democracy with tanks. But for the Chinese now, after many years, this is evidence that China has been able to maintain its sovereign power. That is, they believe that they continue to develop systematically and successfully in the direction set many years ago, while Russia just followed the Western path. And what we had after 1991 – democratisation according to the Western model – was not very successful, we were not able to develop economically in the same way as China is developing.

We had and have an understanding of our importance, of our great mission, for example, as a counterweight to American hegemony, but this is less supported by economic successes like China’s. And this imbalance cannot but create difficulties. We are a very strong player on the world stage, we are paradigmatically important, but the disparate economies affect the unevenness of our co-operation with China – we rank sixth to seventh for China as an economic partner, according to the latest data (the growth of bilateral trade and diverse co-operation cannot be ignored here), which, in particular, leads to the fact that on average we know more about China’s successes than the Chinese know about ours. It is important not to become dependent on Eastern partners after dependence on Western partners.

Chinese positioning in global politics

What are the Chinese doing to make the world aware of them? Many people in our country still think that China is not about ideological expansion, but some kind of a closed entity.

In recent years, the Chinese have markedly improved their professionalism in international diplomacy. It is now “big state diplomacy.” They are getting better at broadcasting their ideas to different layers of Western audiences.

Now we can already talk about a more elaborate system of values and ideological constructs, we can see the emergence of a “Chinese image of the future”. The Chinese have tried to incorporate their cultural foundation into soft power technologies: there was the concept of the “American dream”, they have put forward the “Chinese dream”.

How do we explain to Western audiences that “ours is better”? First, we calcify the concept, saying that the dream can be not only “American” but also “Chinese”. Then we put our own meaning into the copied concept. Western countries got rich by colonisation, by siphoning resources from colonies, and they did it quite unapologetically. If you look at it that way, the “American dream” also has a rather dark past, but look at the bright present and future of the “Chinese dream”.

The Chinese dream, on the contrary, enriches not only China but also all those who join it – there is a typical Chinese pragmatism here. No one is capturing anyone, we are friends and enrich ourselves together – this is how China broadcasts it and this is how the copied ideologeme turns into the antithesis of what was copied, forming a positive image of China.

China has pushed back on the idea that through the spread of its culture it will provide support to its other interests on the outer circuit. But whereas before it was all centred around the idea of national revival (this is really more of an internal story), the desire for a strong outward positioning is now more noticeable.

This work is more profound: the Chinese are working on discourse, trying to gradually “Chineseise” the world’s political language. From their conceptual arsenal (I should note that it is mainly Confucian in origin), they carefully select what can be considered universal values: justice is important for everyone, trust is important for everyone, a sense of duty or humanity is also important for everyone. They are important, but for China it is fundamental to promote Chinese specificity and the Chinese ideological foundation behind it, while formally proclaiming this as the global norm.

What about the means of spreading “soft power”? We, for example, watch American cinema because, although it is not ours, it is culturally close and understandable. And Chinese cinema… It’s beautiful, but it’s impossible to remember the names of the characters. It’s an obstacle.

Well, of course it’s an obstacle. Hong Kong actors and directors, for example, are renamed for a reason: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, etc. But Hong Kong was a British colony, so this process was faster here. In general, China is trying to spread its culture locally with varying degrees of success. Everyone knows the “soft power” of the US, but China has also been actively developing it since the 2000s (I said earlier that China is now undergoing a certain diplomatic reorientation, but still). Many Confucius Institutes have been opened all over the world to promote the Chinese language and culture. In Russia, too, there are them in practically all major and even not so major cities.

Yes, Chinese culture is somewhat difficult for Westerners, but China is trying to translate it to the everyday level, to the level of everyday life, and it is bearing fruit – they are investing in music, TV series, films, network and other games, trying to become an alternative mainstream. In addition, Chinese diasporas are numerous abroad and this makes it easier. In the same America, there are just giant Chinatowns, and they continue to sprawl. In our country it is not so noticeable, but Vasilyevsky Island in St. Petersburg has long been considered half-Chinese. Therefore, I see no insurmountable obstacles to China’s “soft power”, only China’s growing political and ideological ambitions.

By the way, the years 2024-2025 have been declared the Cross Cultural Years between Russia and China, and a huge number of events related to China will take place. So, China is actively and quite successfully integrating at all levels into our cultural space, and we need to keep up and position ourselves in China as effectively as possible.

But does this mean that we do fall under their influence?

I see a certain support for Chinese ideology at our events. We are united by a common aspiration for multipolarity, and in this context we are ready to study Chinese experience and Chinese understanding, we talk about the concept of the Celestial Empire, about Chinese political philosophy. Using their political language can be perceived by the Chinese as following their line, it is quite natural.

The systematic implementation of a unified strategy – and China has one – gives its result. China has a peculiar kind of a life trick. One big ideologeme is dismantled into subparagraphs, which are then implemented in smaller projects (including economic ones), and this generates a serious structure that drives all these projects in a unified direction.

Our society is torn by disputes about variants of ideology (there is, on the contrary, a current against its fixation), we still cannot find a consensus in assessing our own past. And this is not surprising, because we have been trying to sit on two chairs for the last 30 years. Now more than ever, the people need an idea. And this idea, in addition to beautiful words and slogans, must work, it must be seen in practice. In particular, I think this is the reason for some caution on the part of China towards us.

Importance of stable trust

Because we ourselves do not understand what we want?

Yes. That’s why our “turn to the East” was kind of forced. After all, 20-30 years ago we did not talk about such a turn. Of course, we have a huge joint historical past with China, but let’s be honest: for many years we tried very hard to please the West, we wanted to be with “Western partners”, we wanted to be friends with the whole European world, to be perceived as equals.

In his interview with Tucker Carlson, Putin spoke with many examples about how we sincerely wanted to be part of the Western world, but the West didn’t accept us, set us up, didn’t go along with us, deceived us. Well, that’s pretty much how it was. And now we finally came to turn to the East, but, it turns out, not because we wanted to and not because we initially understood the corruptibility of capitalism and the entire Western ideology, but situationally, having found ourselves in a desperate situation.

The Chinese often analyse things in this way in their articles, and there is a certain degree of mistrust behind it. We really turned seriously to the East only when we found ourselves in a difficult situation, and for the Chinese it is important to have trusting relations on an equal footing (otherwise, who guarantees that we will turn round and turn away when it is no longer necessary), the category of stable trust occupies a very important place in their worldview.

Need of reform in Oriental Studies

And yet we have turned to the East. Why do we have so few professional Chinese experts in the public space who would explain something?

Because for many years Russia has not developed such an area as analytics, has not subsidised and in principle has not set itself the goal of developing so-called think tanks. There are thousands of them in the US, but we have only a handful, and those that do exist are rather closed to a wide audience. Since there was either no or very limited support from the state, the personnel grew old and gradually left. As a result, we get the first problem – there is a shortage of personnel.

The second problem is that in our Oriental studies there is a wild bias towards language practice, everyone learns languages in order to become translators or managers with knowledge of Oriental languages. A translator is very good, but, unfortunately, to talk about some more or less complex political or economic problems, it is not enough to be a translator. It is not enough to learn an Oriental language to become an Orientalist.

And many university programmes in recent years have been geared towards this kind of “business pipeline”. Here we act in the most illogical way possible – we talk about turning to the East, while developing classical oriental studies very little. For example, at St. Petersburg State University, the Department of Oriental Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy is being closed. I do not understand how this is even possible in the situation of “turning to the East”. And this is another indicator of the fact that our words are often at odds with real actions.

There is a third point – many good scholars are either not engaged in modernity or do not seek media. They may be excellent Orientalists, but asking them to comment on recent events is pointless. And those who do know about modernity often do not go into the public field on their own.

In my opinion, it is necessary to change the strategy of work here, starting with changes in the planning of educational programmes and ending with the development of a strategy of media support for the personnel being cultivated – classical Orientalism should go hand in hand with practical Orientalism, otherwise the former will be disconnected from reality, and the latter will lose its depth and professionalism.

The interview was initially published here. Translation from Russian by UWI.

United World International

Independent analytical center where political scientists and experts in international relations from various countries exchange their opinions and views.

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April 2024