Tea Leaf Nation
Chinese Netizens Are Cheering Putin’s Syria Campaign
Many also think Assad is a progressive reformer.
As the conflict in Syria continues to rage, with government forces, rebel groups, and Islamic State fighters pitted against each other, Russian airstrikes have added a new layer of complication. Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the airstrikes have targeted only ISIS, while U.S. defense officials claim that Russia has hit U.S.-backed rebel groups, strengthening Assad’s government, and potentially transforming the conflict there into a proxy war between the two former Cold War powers. While there may be little to feel optimistic about as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, Chinese netizens and its state media are surprisingly excited about Putin’s bombing campaign. “Russia is really, truly getting things done,” one netizen noted, in a quote representative of the general sentiment on the Chinese Internet.
While the United States has responded to Putin’s bombing campaign with consternation, China — which maintains close relations with both Russia and Syria — is cheering Putin on from the sidelines. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China has long blocked the UN from taking action on Syria, arguing that intervention could violate Syrian sovereignty — a cardinal sin according to China, which enshrines the inviolability of national sovereignty as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. China therefore views U.S. support of Syrian rebel groups as a serious violation of sovereignty, and U.S. involvement there is deeply unpopular among China’s populace. Russia, Syria’s ally, has stated that it commenced its bombing campaign only at the invitation of Assad’s government, a statement affirmed by Syrian state media. As a campaign that, from the Chinese perspective, maintains Syria’s sovereignty, bolsters its official government, and makes U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy in the region appear weak and ineffectual, it’s small wonder that Putin’s move is popular among both China’s state media and its online populace.
Reports in China’s tightly controlled state media have characterized Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria as a productive measure, welcomed by both the Syrian government and people, and purely aimed at stopping the Islamic State. An Oct. 11 article in state news agency Xinhua article painted Assad as an embattled leader who enjoyed significant domestic support, strengthened at a crucial moment by Russia’s help against “some rebel groups receiving assistance from external forces.” And an Oct. 12 Xinhua op-ed stated that Putin’s deployment of soldiers to Syria “strengthens the pursuit of a political solution,” which is what Beijing has called for in the region. On both Oct. 13 and Oct. 14, the reliably nationalist state-run Global Times featured an article near the top of its homepage about an Oct. 13 pro-Russian rally, with the headline “the Syrian people gather to thank Russia.” Reports about the Syrian rebel attack on the rally, however, were not featured on the homepage.
Chinese media have also sought to downplay what U.S. Senator John McCain and others have called a proxy war between Russia and the United States, instead blaming the United States for having an overly negative interpretation of Russia’s actions. An Oct. 11 Xinhua explainer on the situation in Syria did not acknowledge that Russia had targeted U.S.-backed rebel groups, instead linking U.S.-Russia tensions to “different definitions” of what constituted Islamic State targets. An Oct. 13 editorial in party mouthpiece People’s Daily castigated the United States and “Western media” for reviving a Cold War mentality, when Russia was simply trying to fight terrorists. “Russia has already indicated that its military activities should come at the invitation of the Syrian government, and that its goal is to attack terrorist extremism within Syria’s borders,” the editorial stated, “but Western public opinion’s interpretation of Russia’s actions of course is unwilling to limit itself to this.” The Oct. 12 op-ed even argued that Russia’s military involvement would benefit East-West relations, and “force the West to construct new cooperative channels” with Russia, thus making the airstrikes as a “unique method of warming U.S-Russia relations.”
Many Chinese web users were even more enthusiastic about Putin’s move in Syria than the state media reports, and have pushed back strongly at the West’s characterization of Assad as a tyrant murdering his own people to stay in power. A viral Oct. 3 article forwarded more than 70,000 times on microblogging platform Weibo characterized the conflict in Syria largely as a power struggle between Obama and Putin, in which the Russian president — called, with seeming admiration, “Emperor Putin” — outsmarted and outplayed the U.S. president. Indeed, some Chinese netizens even seem to pity Assad. Of the post’s more than 12,000 comments, many portrayed Assad as a reluctant doctor-turned-president who had suffered from bad fortune: a drought in his country, the rise of the Islamic State, and U.S. meddling. One popular comment stated that Assad “basically hasn’t brutally killed anyone,” instead blaming the country’s chaos on the 2006 to 2009 drought that displaced many Syrians, and on the United States, concluding, “When America and its dog and chicken allies started meddling and supporting the rebels, that’s when Syria’s civil war started.”
Others viewed Assad as a sort of progressive reformer. “I don’t think Assad is a tyrant,” wrote one user in a popular comment to the Oct. 3 article. “Assad requires females to receive education, and has an attitude of wanting to serve the people.” Some popular comments repeated that “Assad is no dictator” and that he was working on “reforming the economy” before — according to a view commonly held in China — the United States fanned the flames of unrest during the 2011 protests. On Oct. 15, one Weibo user posted a photo of Assad advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, who had just met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing. “She doesn’t have a headscarf, she doesn’t wear a face veil, she doesn’t wear a black robe,” the user commented. “If China doesn’t support this kind of a secular Middle Eastern regime, are we supporting ISIS?”
Certainly not every Chinese web user harbors such rosy sentiment towards the Syrian president. On Oct. 14, one Weibo user, who self-identified as a 51 year-old man from China’s southern Guizhou province, posted a list of Syrian civilian casualty counts, claiming that Assad’s regime had killed far more civilians than ISIS. (He did not source the information, though the Washington Post has made a similar claim.) “People always say ISIS is the most evil, but is that true?” he asked. But other Weibo users quickly pounced. Of the over 100 comments his post attracted, almost all ridiculed him, with some calling him “brain-damaged” and a “beast” who deserved to be “annihilated by IS.”
To be sure, despite the popularity of Putin’s campaign and domestic Chinese support for Assad, Beijing is unlikely to directly intervene to prop up the Syrian government. Unverified rumors that China would provide military support to the regime have circulated since late September, perhaps fueled in part by what seems to be a significant push by Damascus to line up China as part of the Russian-Iranian alliance in support of Assad. Pro-regime Syrian media has also touted Chinese support, along with Shaaban’s recent meeting with the Chinese foreign minister. With or without Chinese intervention, however, it seems likely that Putin’s move to prop up Assad will remain popular in China.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr