Argument

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Xi’s Control of Domestic Politics Has Trapped Beijing Over Ukraine

Analysts in China can’t be open about what drives policy.

By , a professor of political science at Williams College.
China's President Xi Jinping (right) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin
China's President Xi Jinping (right) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin
China's President Xi Jinping (right) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting during the BRICS Summit in Brasília, Brazil, on Nov. 14, 2019. Pavel Golovkin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping has created a strategic predicament for his country’s response to the Russian war on Ukraine. This is not simply a matter of personal policy choices he has made as supreme leader. It is an outcome of an increasingly autocratic political system: Policy of any sort must serve the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, and the party’s interests are now defined and dominated by the concentrated power of the general secretary. The political logic of this regime has produced what an eminent Chinese scholar of international relations at Tsinghua University, Yan Xuetong, has recently described as “a strategic predicament for China.”

However, Yan would likely reject this Xi-centric framing. His recent Foreign Affairs article never mentions Xi and offers only thin and oblique references to domestic Chinese politics. Nonetheless, in both what he writes and, more importantly, what he does not write, Yan reveals how China’s vexed reaction to Russia’s invasion is a consequence of Xi’s outsized presence in the political system.

Yan presents the Xi-approved official version of events: The United States provoked the Russian attack by pressing NATO expansion, Washington is now escalating and prolonging the conflict with massive arms transfers to weaken both Russia and China, and the United States is so deeply committed to containment of Chinese power that it would likely not alter that stance even if Beijing cooperated against Moscow. There is no mention of China’s long-held commitment to opposing violations of any state’s territorial sovereignty. So much for the 2013 Sino-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has created a strategic predicament for his country’s response to the Russian war on Ukraine. This is not simply a matter of personal policy choices he has made as supreme leader. It is an outcome of an increasingly autocratic political system: Policy of any sort must serve the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, and the party’s interests are now defined and dominated by the concentrated power of the general secretary. The political logic of this regime has produced what an eminent Chinese scholar of international relations at Tsinghua University, Yan Xuetong, has recently described as “a strategic predicament for China.”

However, Yan would likely reject this Xi-centric framing. His recent Foreign Affairs article never mentions Xi and offers only thin and oblique references to domestic Chinese politics. Nonetheless, in both what he writes and, more importantly, what he does not write, Yan reveals how China’s vexed reaction to Russia’s invasion is a consequence of Xi’s outsized presence in the political system.

Yan presents the Xi-approved official version of events: The United States provoked the Russian attack by pressing NATO expansion, Washington is now escalating and prolonging the conflict with massive arms transfers to weaken both Russia and China, and the United States is so deeply committed to containment of Chinese power that it would likely not alter that stance even if Beijing cooperated against Moscow. There is no mention of China’s long-held commitment to opposing violations of any state’s territorial sovereignty. So much for the 2013 Sino-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

In Yan’s account, China has pursued a careful “balancing strategy,” trying not to antagonize either the United States or Russia. Although costly, economically and diplomatically, there is, for Yan, really no alternative to this “middle path.” The implication here is that larger strategic dynamics are at work—an inexorable international balancing of power that requires China to resist coming down against Russian aggression, regardless of the negative ramifications. This is in keeping with Yan’s self-identification as an international relations realist. Great-power status, which he believes China has attained, sometimes necessitates certain actions, regardless of short-term costs. Beijing cannot support Ukraine because it must keep Moscow as at least a junior partner to counter Washington’s power globally.

To illustrate the exigencies of international power balancing, Yan invokes Mao Zedong’s foreign policy from 1958 to 1971. At that time, following the Sino-Soviet split, China faced serious threats from both the Soviet Union and the United States. Mao responded, Yan writes, with the Third Front policy, defensively shifting industrial production to inland areas away from possible attack. Yan notes that this decision was an economic disaster, “causing severe commodity shortages and widespread poverty.” The lesson he draws from it, however, is that China should not get “sandwiched between Washington and Moscow once again,” suggesting that the root of Maoist economic failure was an adverse global strategic environment.

There are at least two problems with this argument.

First, the Sino-Soviet split and attendant dual threat of both the United States and the Soviet Union were not inevitable and uncontrollable forces imposed upon China. Rather, they were the result of ideologically motivated policy choices of Mao and the party leadership. From at least 1957 onward, following the successful Sputnik launch that he saw as a sign of advanced Soviet power, Mao called for a more aggressive posture against the United States. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was more circumspect, looking the maintain “peaceful coexistence” with the West. When Mao pressed the issue in the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, Khrushchev lost faith in Mao’s foreign-policy judgment, and the subsequent deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations ensued. The key point here is that China was not forced to move away from the Soviet Union; Mao and the party leadership chose to do so. They chose to radicalize foreign policy and ignore the potential dangers of nuclear conflict.

This is a second problem with Yan’s essay: neglect of the full extent of Maoist leadership failures. The turn against the Soviet Union was occurring simultaneously with the emergence of the horrific Great Leap Forward. The massive human-made starvation that resulted was driven by a fanatical ideology enacted by a highly centralized Leninist party dominated by Mao. While this was perhaps not his initial intention, Mao was made aware of the unfolding humanitarian disaster, but he stayed the course and let millions of people die. He paid a political price later, when other party leaders finally put an end to the suffering, but he came back to destroy that same party leadership during the Cultural Revolution. During 1958-1971, then, the Third Front policy was the least of China’s problems. Much greater suffering was inflicted on the country by Mao, using the full force of the autocratic state.

It is impossible to come to an adequate understanding of the Sino-Soviet split, or other elements of Maoist-era foreign policy, without placing them in the context of domestic politics. Analysts should not make the same mistake now over China’s response to the Russian war on Ukraine.

Although there are many differences from the Maoist era, Chinese politics have, in the Xi era, become more centralized around the general secretary and more repressive of society in general. Declining economic growth and increasing social pluralism pose problems for political legitimacy of authoritarian rule. Xi takes nothing for granted and pours money into domestic “stability maintenance” policing, internet censorship, and extreme subjugation of Uyghurs and Tibetans.

Anti-Americanism has become a staple of nationalist discourse. The United States is blamed for starting the COVID-19 pandemic, the uprisings in Hong Kong, and the corruption of Chinese youth, among many other domestic and global issues. It was in these circumstances that Xi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin stated, on the eve of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, that the Chinese-Russian friendship knows “no limits.”

Even though Chinese diplomats—and the country’s actions, such as its reluctance to violate sanctions—have signaled that there are, indeed, limits to Chinese support for the Russian war, the more important political point is Xi’s very public and personal alignment with Putin. To shift away from Moscow now would raise questions regarding his political judgement. How could Xi support, even tacitly, the U.S. position on Ukraine, after Chinese media have relentlessly condemned the United States for myriad wrongs in the world? The Xi cult of personality has grown to such an extent—even if not yet to Maoist proportions—that any challenge to his credibility and wisdom could undermine political authority more generally, especially with a Party Congress on the horizon where the general secretary’s term of office is likely to be extended.

Xi has made a political calculation that his standing and the party’s standing require an anti-American nationalism and that Russia is an important element in bolstering that anti-Americanism internationally. To reverse that decision, even if such a change would make sense in terms of foreign policy, could destabilize domestic politics—and, for Xi, domestic politics is in command. He will not back down from the increasingly counterproductive policy of pursuing zero COVID-19 cases in China at any cost, he will not back down from his eradication of civil society in Hong Kong, and he will not back down from his support of Putin, because to do any of these things could erode the image of the infallible supreme leader.

Yan knows all of this, though he might come to a different conclusion about the relative weight of domestic political concerns versus global power balances in assessing Chinese foreign policy. The telling point, however, is that he cannot engage in this kind of discussion. To do so would open him up to criticism—and perhaps worse, as the demise of dissident academic Xu Zhangrun demonstrates—for even considering faulty judgment on the part of the general secretary. Nor can he directly criticize even the long-dead Mao for the terrible failures of the Great Leap famine and Cultural Revolution, which could be a case of anti-party “historical nihilism.” Instead, he is reduced to a wan analysis of a vaguely structurally determined “predicament” devoid of any agency on the part of Xi, the key decision-maker.

It is a shame, really, because Yan has, in other writing, advocated for “humane authority,” indirectly suggesting that China needs political reform at home before it presses its power onto the world. He is a subtle and engaged thinker. But not at this moment, and not in this piece. Here he is reduced, by the growing power of autocracy, to framing China’s clear support for Russian aggression as a “middle path,” a “balancing strategy.”

He’s correct that China is in a bind: Support for Moscow creates economic and diplomatic problems for Beijing. But what he cannot say is that Xi and the party leadership have chosen this path because they believe it is the best means for maintaining their power at home, regardless of the costs.

Sam Crane is a professor of political science at Williams College, where he teaches contemporary Chinese politics and ancient Chinese philosophy.

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