Bristling Against the West, China Rallies Domestic Sympathy for Russia

As Russian troops have pummeled Ukraine, officials in China have been meeting behind closed doors to study a Communist Party-produced documentary extolling Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin as a hero.

The humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, the video says, was the result of US efforts to destroy its legitimacy. With rising music and sunny scenes of present-day Moscow, the documentary praises Putin for restoring Stalin’s position as a great wartime leader and for renewing patriotic pride in Russia’s past.

To the world, China presents itself as an early observer of the war in Ukraine, not choosing sides, simply seeking peace. At home, however, the Chinese Communist Party is running a campaign that paints Russia as a long-suffering victim rather than an aggressor and defends China’s strong ties with Moscow as vital.

Chinese universities have organized classes to give students a “correct understanding” of the war, often highlighting Russia’s grievances with the West. Party newspapers have published a series of comments blaming the United States for the conflict.

Across the country, the Communist Party has organized sessions for officials to view and discuss the history documentary. The 101-minute video, which was completed last year, makes no mention of the war in Ukraine, but argues that Russia is right to worry about neighbors who broke away from the Soviet Union. It depicts Putin cleansing Russia of the political toxins that killed the Soviet Union.

“The most powerful weapon the West possesses is, apart from nuclear weapons, the methods it uses in ideological struggle,” says the documentary’s narrator in a stern voice, quoting a Russian scholar. The documentary was marked for internal viewing, that is, for audiences chosen by party officials and not for general publication, but the video and script recently appeared online in China.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, he says, “some countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Transcaucasia have become forward positions for the West to contain and interfere in Russia.”

China’s leaders have long used the Soviet collapse as a warning, but Xi has given that story a more urgent and sinister twist. In doing so, he has embraced Putin as a fellow authoritarian aligned against Western rule, showing the Chinese people that Xi has a partner in their cause.

It is unclear whether allegations of atrocities by Russian soldiers, with civilians found shot in the head or with their hands tied behind their backs before being killed, will affect China’s support for the Russian invasion.

But China has so far refused to condemn Putin for the war, which has killed thousands of civilians. Despite pressure from other world leaders to use its influence over Moscow to help end the crisis, Beijing has done little more than sue for peace. And on Thursday, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, expressed the country’s commitment to strong ties with Moscow during talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in China.

The Biden administration has presented the war as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Chinese officials are mounting a counter-narrative that US-led domination is the source of the conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere. They see both China and Russia as threatened by the “color revolution,” the party’s phrase for insurrections backed by Western governments. President Biden’s recent comments calling for Putin’s impeachment are likely to bolster Beijing’s view.

“They actually believe in their own narrative about color revolutions and they tend to see this whole situation as a color revolution led by the United States to topple Putin,” said Christopher K. Johnson, chairman of the China Strategy Group and a former analyst. of the Chinese Central Intelligence Agency. Chinese politics.

“Both domestically and internationally, Xi has been spreading this dark narrative since he came to power,” Johnson said in an interview. “It allows him to justify his buildup of power and the changes he’s made by creating this sense of struggle and danger.”

The documentary portrays the collapse of the Soviet Union as a lesson to Chinese officials not to be seduced by Western liberalism. China, the documentary says, must never follow the course taken by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who had initiated glasnost, or openness, and compromise with the West.

In 2013, Mr. Xi’s propaganda officials released a documentary on the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This last shot offers an even more conspiratorial performance.

The documentary attributes the decline of the Soviet Union to political liberalization, especially what Beijing calls “historical nihilism,” or emphasizes the mistakes and misdeeds of the Communist Party. He accuses critical historians of the Soviet revolution of fabricating an estimated death toll of many millions for Stalin’s purges.

Stalin, he argues, was a modernizing leader whose purges went too far, but initially “were something of a necessity” given the threats to the Soviet government. He suggests that rock music and modern fashion were symptoms of the moral rot that followed.

“They’ve only learned one lesson from all of this, and that is that they don’t allow any freedom of expression,” said Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who studies Chinese and Soviet history, “because this kind of freedom it inevitably leads to the loss of political control and that creates chaos.”

The documentary credits Putin with restoring Russia’s spirit.

It shows Putin marching in a parade marking Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany and young Russians kissing a banner bearing his portrait. Previous leaders in Moscow, most notably Mr. Gorbachev and Nikita S. Khrushchev, are portrayed as fools, spellbound by the siren song of liberal reform and Western superiority.

The documentary, “Historical Nihilism and the Soviet Collapse,” has been the centerpiece of a month-long campaign targeting party officials that has continued since Russia began its all-out assault on Ukraine on February 24, according to reports online. local government websites. Officials overseeing the screenings are often described in official notices as calling on the cadres to maintain steadfast loyalty to Mr Xi.

“Loving a party and its leader is not a cult of personality,” Zheng Keyang, a former deputy director of the party’s Central Policy Research Bureau and a consultant for the documentary, said in a discussion of the documentary posted by a pro website. -match. this month.

Chinese leaders have been debating why the Soviet Union fell apart ever since it dissolved in 1991. More than his predecessors, Xi has blamed the breakup of the Soviet Union on a lack of ideological backbone and Western political subversion.

“If you have the worldview that you see in this documentary, you could tell yourself the story that the Russians are facing a real threat from the West,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University in Washington who studies elite politics in China. and Russia, he said in an interview.

The study campaign is aimed at instilling loyalty among cadres ahead of a Chinese Communist Party congress later this year, where Xi appears poised to claim a third term.

Political loyalty has become more crucial for Mr Xi as Beijing tries to contain Covid outbreaks with strict lockdowns and manage a slowing economy. China’s foreign policy is under scrutiny after some Chinese academics published essays criticizing Beijing’s refusal to condemn Putin.

Many of the critical essays have been removed and the party has done more to defend its position in recent weeks. Editorials in Communist Party newspapers have amplified Chinese leaders’ argument that the real culprit in Ukraine is the United States and NATO, for undermining Russian security.

“It was the United States that personally lit the fuse for the current conflagration between Russia and Ukraine,” stated one of a series of editorials in the Liberation Army Daily, the leading military newspaper.

Universities and colleges have held indoctrination conferences for students, suggesting officials worry that young, educated Chinese may be receptive to criticism that Beijing has been too lenient with Putin.

Liu Zuokui, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told an audience of college students in eastern China that the war arose from “NATO’s eastward expansion that squeezed Russia’s survival space,” said a online summary of the conference.

China, another speaker told physicists in Beijing, had to protect its strategic partnership with Russia from “intense shocks and impacts.”

The party’s demands for conformity on the crisis will make it more difficult for any dissidents to unite in a rejection against Xi.

“There’s an ‘we get together or we get together’ attitude that comes into play,” Johnson, a former CIA analyst, said of Chinese leaders. “If it’s a strong nationalist approach, who in the party doesn’t want to be a good nationalist?”

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