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Did Russia Catch China Off Guard in Ukraine?

Beijing may have at least bought Moscow’s narrative of a quick invasion.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying gestures during the daily press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing on Feb. 24.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying gestures during the daily press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing on Feb. 24.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying gestures during the daily press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing on Feb. 24. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: How China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is evolving, Hong Kong continues to grapple with a spiraling COVID-19 outbreak, and Western sanctions on Moscow lead to some rethinking in Beijing.

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Decoding China’s Position on Ukraine

China is still leaning toward Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, although Beijing still hasn’t given full-throated support to the attacks. Chinese diplomats have spoken of “sovereignty” and the “Ukraine issue” ambiguously, but their anti-Western language is much clearer. Meanwhile, Chinese state media and propaganda continue to be largely in favor of Russia, although that has shifted slightly since the start of the invasion, as Tracy Wen Liu writes in Foreign Policy.

The best way to judge China’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine remains through actions and censorship. Beijing has made clear it won’t support Western sanctions; some Chinese firms may have to comply due to the internationalization of business. (Unlike with sanctions against China, it is unlikely that Beijing will apply penalties to these firms.)

Meanwhile, censors are allowing pro-Russia material and misinformation about Ukraine to spread unchecked online. State media is echoing Moscow’s use of “military operation” rather than war or invasion. Chinese calling for peace or condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin have seen their accounts deleted.

The media has also highlighted the fate of the around 6,000 Chinese citizens in Ukraine. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at first asked its citizens in Ukraine to fly the national flag to protect themselves but reversed its advice once it became clear that Ukrainians were furious about China’s position on the invasion. This is a key issue because Chinese propaganda makes a big deal of Beijing’s ability to protect its citizens worldwide. At least one Chinese student has already been injured.

Russia’s invasion clearly caught China off guard to some degree. The Wall Street Journal reports that skepticism about a Russian invasion went right to the top of the Chinese leadership, informing Beijing’s decisions. Stimson Center expert Yun Sun also argues that Russia played China, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials convinced that Moscow wouldn’t act—and perhaps told so directly by Putin and others.

That scenario is certainly possible. Chinese intelligence is just as capable of mistakes as Western intelligence—perhaps even more so, given internal ideological biases and bosses who are more unwilling to admit they were wrong. But the sources on what China’s leadership knew seem to be international relations scholars in China, not those in the inner circles of the Chinese Communist Party. Moreover, it appears politically convenient to say that China was fooled, rather than conspiring with Russia.

The New York Times, citing Western intelligence sources, reports that Russia did inform China of the attack and that Beijing asked for it to be delayed until after the Winter Olympics. My own instinct says the Chinese leadership knew an invasion was coming but likely believed Russian claims that it would be over quickly as Ukrainian resistance collapsed. There are considerable military-to-military contacts between China and Russia, and the strength of Ukraine’s resistance seems to have surprised Russia itself.

It would make sense that Chinese officials bought Russia’s narrative, if only for political convenience. Chinese propaganda has often said Taiwan would fall within 24 hours of a Chinese invasion and that Taiwanese wish to return to the motherland—claims that echo the Russian stance on Ukraine and which may have influenced Beijing’s perception of the situation in Ukraine. China is also sympathetic to narratives about CIA involvement in revolutions and protests, for example.

The surprisingly strong Ukrainian resistance and Western support may have caused China to recalculate, both on Ukraine and Taiwan. It remains unlikely that China would use this opportunity to attack Taiwan, as some analysts have suggested. Ukraine’s demonstration of just how fierce resistance can be and how much national support it can gather may give Beijing a pause in the future—although it may also be taking notes on how to do better than Russia has.

What We’re Following

U.N. politics. One indication of genuine Chinese upset at Russia may be China’s decision to abstain from both the United Nations Security Council vote and the U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn its actions against Ukraine. Beijing’s U.N. General Assembly vote seems like an attempt to distance itself from being tied too closely to Russia, at least within international institutions.

Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan are also trying to take a middle ground on the situation in Ukraine, seeking to avoid getting caught in the net of U.S. sanctions and other financial measures. Almost all abstained from the U.N. vote and have distanced themselves from the war. That is a particularly remarkable decision on Kazakhstan’s part, since Russian troops arrived to prop up the Kazakh autocracy during January protests. Russian media has already accused Kazakhstan of betrayal.

Hong Kong’s COVID-19 outbreak grows worse. Hong Kong is expected to report more than 50,000 new cases on Wednesday, a number that could be larger—in absolute terms—than that of the entire United States. The omicron variant has swept through the densely populated city, causing mass panic and leaving store shelves empty. Lack of space and full quarantine facilities have left some Hong Kongers sleeping outside to avoid infecting family.

Meanwhile, China is hinting at a reconsideration of its zero-COVID policy. Zeng Guang, a top scientist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed the possibility of a new policy in the “near future” in a recent interview. The outcome of Hong Kong’s outbreak will probably affect this reconsideration. The death rate still lags the case rate, but it is rising; if the death toll stays relatively low, reopening becomes more of a possibility.

Can the PLA fight? The scale of Russian losses in Ukraine must be raising questions within China’s military, which has not fought a full-scale war since 1979, when it invaded Vietnam. The Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed 498 dead and 1,800 wounded—almost certainly an underestimate, given the source; Ukraine has claimed as many as 6,000 Russian dead.

It’s very early days, but one of the root problems appears to be military corruption in Russia, which led to supply and command issues. This rings a bell in China: One of its most humiliating defeats was in 1894, when the Japanese navy wrecked the Beiyang Fleet due to endemic corruption and inferior equipment, something commentators still mention frequently.

China attempted a crackdown on corruption in the People’s Liberation Army in 2012 and 2013, when top generals were arrested as part of Xi’s purges. But problems continue: The last few years have seen the arrest of the chairman of the military’s main shipbuilding firm and of one of its main arms suppliers.

Tech and Business

Algorithmic limits. New limits on how algorithmic recommendations can work went into effect on Tuesday in China after being passed in January. Although Chinese regulations are always turned toward censorship to some degree, this measure seems to be genuinely directed toward customer protection.

China’s digital paternalism has seen a strong push for data controls—for companies, not the government—and limits on how apps manipulate users, in contrast to the United States, where privacy controls, for instance, remain more affected by Apple’s decisions than Congress.

Read FP Analytics’ latest report on China’s Personal Information Protection Law and Data Security Law, which also came into effect recently, to understand the increasingly complicated information environment in China.

Sanctions-busting. China is increasing its commitments to purchasing wheat and energy from Russia, indicating a willingness to aid the Russian economy and a disdain for Western-led sanctions. But the Western steps have also unleashed uncertainty; sources in Beijing tell me that Sinosure, the state insurance company for foreign trade, has received a rush of inquiries about how firms will be affected. I would also expect a wave of unofficial trading to Russia running along the border, although COVID-19 restrictions may limit it.

China is also likely considering how to further sanctions-proof its own economy, given the West’s economic muscle-flexing. Some Russian banks’ expulsion from the SWIFT banking system may also spur China to hurry up in establishing its currently thin alternative, CIPS. The Russian economy is one-tenth the size of China’s, and decoupling China from the international system would be much harder—but the surprising commitment of European institutions may have caused some rethinking in Beijing.

Supply chains. The isolation of Russia from the international order will cause increased supply chain problems for an already strained China. As Andreea Brinza writes in Foreign Policy, shipping delays and port problems due to the pandemic had shifted a surprising amount of trade to land routes through Russia, a heavy part of the Belt and Road Initiative. With those routes now off the table, that trade will return to the ports and add to an overburdened system.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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