What Does the Wagner Revolt Mean for China?
Potential instability in Moscow is inconvenient for Putin’s partners in Beijing.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China reacts to the Wagner Group’s insurrection in Russia, U.S.-China relations show no softening after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing, and a Chinese agribusiness giant is set for a major stock launch.
Can Beijing Count on an Unstable Moscow?
China was slow to respond to the brief revolt by Wagner Group mercenaries in Russia, but it eventually came out with a statement of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In China, news coverage of the weekend insurrection is limited. Among Chinese pundits, there may have been some uncertainty about taking the right line; for example, nationalist writer Hu Xijin shared his concerns about Russian stability on social media before deleting the post.
The delayed response seems to reflect some bafflement within the Chinese leadership; I think Beijing remains in the dark about what happened over the weekend just like anyone outside the Kremlin—if it even has a clear picture.
Yet the Russian weaknesses exposed by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin are likely to disturb some people at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After all, the CCP justifies its own oppression as maintaining national stability. (It is also the basis of Chinese leaders’ own wealth and power.) For a long time, the CCP has held up the Soviet Union as an example of what not to do—including making space for reform, indulging the idea of ethnic nations, and allowing challenges to the state’s monopoly on power and historical truth.
By contrast, China saw Putin’s rule as a model not only for putting the country back together, but also for standing up to the West. In 2014, Chinese state media portrayed Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a rightful reclamation of territory, and Beijing and Moscow grew closer in the aftermath. Chinese President Xi Jinping played up his friendship with his Russian counterpart from the start of his rule in 2013. Within China, Putin had very high public approval ratings for years.
The Wagner Group fiasco is unlikely to result in any significant changes in how China handles its own military, given the tightness of existing controls. Chinese history is full of forces who were more loyal to their general than to the empire—and the resulting revolts. But the People’s Republic of China has generally imitated Soviet control of the army, most notably through a system in which military commanders have parallel political commissars. Generals also often rotate between commands to prevent strong power bases from developing.
That system didn’t stop top generals such as Ye Jianying from becoming powerful players during the Maoist era, or People’s Liberation Army officials from creating their own private business empires. But Xi has made a point of repeatedly carrying out purges within the military. Just before Prigozhin’s attempted coup, China introduced a whole raft of rules governing the social lives of military leaders—including retired generals. Paramilitary government organizations such as the People’s Armed Police face similar restraints.
Even outside its borders, China has no equivalent of the Wagner Group. Although there are many Chinese private security companies—often used as reinforcements by local governments, property developers, and organized crime alike—they are very fragmented and have little foreign presence. There is a small sector dedicated to overseas security for Chinese companies, but it is weak and underdeveloped, leaving firms operating abroad vulnerable to local militants or mercenaries.
Putin’s apparently weakened position is inconvenient for China, which is why the limited coverage within the country has tended to emphasize Russia’s supposed stability and blame the West for suggesting otherwise. My bet is that Russian diplomats will tell their Chinese colleagues the Prigozhin affair was a CIA plot—a narrative that will fall on receptive ears. Yet the chaotic events will add extra weight to the arguments of a small group of intellectuals who say Beijing may have blundered by putting so many chips on Moscow.
But that could be an increasingly risky argument. It takes little to trigger paranoid leaders such as Xi. Given how closely Xi has aligned himself with Putin, the Russian leader’s weakness won’t lead to Beijing disassociating from Moscow—unless Putin falls completely. Rather, it’s likely Chinese officials and pundits will double down on rhetorical support for Russia out of fear that criticism of Putin could be read as criticism of Xi.
But the Wagner insurrection could also ultimately increase cautiousness in Beijing. Despite pro-Russian propaganda, many Chinese institutions have hedged their bets when it comes to how far they’re willing to go to help Moscow. After all, a country where it isn’t certain who will be in charge on Monday is not a reliable partner.
What We’re Following
No softening after Blinken visit. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing last week doesn’t seem to have produced any real reduction in U.S.-China tensions. Instead, last week U.S. President Joe Biden offhandedly referred to Xi as a “dictator”—an undeniably true statement but one bound to provoke China. Chinese coverage of Biden’s comment was muted, perhaps because it hit a little too close to home.
Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is planning a visit to China, presumably to try to persuade Beijing that Washington still wants to do some business with it. That may be a hard sell, given that more U.S. investment curbs are on the horizon: A Biden administration executive order that would regulate and cut off some U.S. investments in China is reportedly nearly ready.
Most of last week’s U.S.-China disputes revolved around fentanyl, with the United States indicting some Chinese chemical manufacturers. U.S. allegations of Chinese complicity in the drug trade sparked indignation in Beijing; after all, China has a history as a target for Western drug traffickers. China’s role in the drug trade is also in the gray zone: Manufacturers are aware that precursor chemicals end up in the hands of drug cartels, but fentanyl is a drug widely used by hospitals. The accusations aren’t likely to secure the trade cooperation the United States seeks.
No new info on COVID-19 origin. The release of a declassified report summarizing the state of U.S. intelligence on the origins of COVID-19 included little new information, but it did kibosh recent poorly sourced claims, touted by former Trump administration staff, about Chinese scientists who fell ill in 2019. The U.S. report restated there was no evidence that Wuhan laboratories were bioengineering viruses—the “lab leak” conspiracy theory—and that U.S. intelligence agencies remain weakly in favor of a theory of natural origin.
China continues to obfuscate almost all evidence around the origins of COVID-19, including the events around the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market; it also continues inventing its own sources and conspiracy theories. In the United States, lab leak theories have become inextricably linked to wider right-wing attacks on scientists. Lab leak enthusiasts have consistently produced ill-informed journalism about COVID-19’s origins, and the latest round of claims is no exception.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- America Dropped the Baton in the Rare-Earth Race by Christina Lu
- Will India Surpass China to Become the Next Superpower? by Graham Allison
- Putin’s Armor Has Been Pierced by Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., and William F. Browder
Tech and Business
Syngenta listing. Agribusiness giant Syngenta is set to list on the Shanghai stock exchange in what would be the fourth-biggest initial public offering for a Chinese firm, at $9.1 billion. Western banks are keen to get involved in the listing, but they may find themselves frustrated by new investment regulations and distrust on the U.S. and Chinese sides of the equation.
State-owned giant ChemChina purchased Syngenta, originally a Swiss firm, six years ago. The deal was one of the last products of a different era in Chinese relations with the West. I doubt that the purchase would be approved today—at least in the United States. But the finance sector has generally been among the biggest lobbyists for Beijing in the West, not least because firms have often hired the scions of powerful CCP families.
How much does China owe? In another sign of anxiety around the Chinese economy’s failure to recover in the wake of its zero-COVID policy, popular finance writer Wu Xiaobo and two other writers were censored and criticized for their negative comments on China’s record-high unemployment rate and shaky markets. Beijing frequently props up the stock market in crisis moments by restricting deals, threatening critics, and mandating purchases.
Meanwhile, China’s central government is trying to figure out just how much debt local governments hold through another round of investigations. Other audits have found that local governments exaggerate their own revenue. This knowledge gap is a problem for China when it comes to policymaking: The lack of transparency ends up backfiring on the central government, while businesses struggle with Beijing’s own secrecy.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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