Chinese historians break ranks with party line in condemning Russia's Ukraine war

Attitudes are shifting in China as Russians fail to take Ukrainian capital in the face of determined resistance.
By Qiao Long, Jia Ao, Chen Meihua and Liu Aoran
Chinese historians break ranks with party line in condemning Russia's Ukraine war Servicemen of the Ukrainian Military Forces on patrol in the small town of Severodonetsk, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, Feb. 27, 2022.

Five Chinese historians have published an open letter condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in a move that breaks ranks with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s ban on criticism of the move by Putin.

"As a country that was once also ravaged by war ... we sympathize with the suffering of the Ukrainian people," the letter, signed by history professors at five top Chinese universities, said. "The ruins of buildings, the sound of artillery fire, and the wounds of refugees in Ukraine have injured us deeply."

Calling the invasion a "war that began in the dark," Nanjing University professor Sun Jiang, Peking University professor Wang Lixin, Hong Kong University professor Xu Guoqi, Tsinghua historian Zhong Weimin and Fudan University's Chen Yan call for an immediate end to the fighting.

"We emphatically call on the Russian government and President Putin to stop the war and resolve any dispute through negotiations," it said.

It warned that the conflict could spark a "massive, global war."

"In the midst of all the noise, we felt the need to make our voices heard," the letter said. "We are concerned that Russian military action will lead to turmoil in Europe and the entire world, and trigger wider humanitarian disaster."

A senior Chinese journalist who gave only the surname Gao said many in China were taken by surprised at the strength of the Ukrainian resistance.

"The capability and determination of the Ukrainians really surprised us, and we really admire it," Gao said. "We think ... Russia will likely be removed from its seat as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council."

Independent political commentator Wu Qiang said China's current position of tacit support for the Kremlin is currently something of a marriage of convenience, however.

"They have uses for each other, but this alliance is very unstable, because they lack a common ideology or set of values," Wu told RFA. "China can appreciate the insistence that Russia and Ukraine are part of a single entity, which we saw in Putin's speech."

"But the way Russia has reconstructed its Orthodox Christian traditions from an anti-communist perspective actually runs counter to the CCP's current ideology," he said.

Journalist Li Ming said Beijing had likely expected the military operation to be over within 24 hours.

"They didn't expect Ukraine to fight back from day one, and now they're thinking maybe Russia's military offensive isn't as intense as they thought it would be, three or four days in," Li said. "Europe and the U.S. are now fighting back [with arms supplies and sanctions]."

"So now China is panicking, and it wants to shift the tide of public opinion [away from support for Russia], [because] most countries in the world think Russia is in the wrong," he said.

A former international news editor surnamed Li said around 90 percent of Chinese citizens had supported the Kremlin until now.

"The CCP was created by the former Soviet Union, which had a decades-long relationship with China until the collapse of the Soviet era," Li said. "So it's the result of brainwashing."

"There is also another factor involved here, which is the tendency of the Chinese public to support the stronger party," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2022. AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2022. AFP
Keeping a low profile

State news agency Xinhua reported on Friday that CCP leader Xi Jinping spoke with Putin by phone on Friday, during which he advised against "a Cold-War mentality," and called for dialogue to resolve the situation.

Ye Yaoyuan, chair of the department of international studies and contemporary linguistics at the University of St. Thomas, said Chinese leaders are learning to keep a low profile when faced with complex geopolitical issues.

"China really can't say much about this war, otherwise it looks like the 'big bad guy' to the rest of the world," Ye told RFA. "It's hard to justify supporting a country that is trampling over the sovereignty of another country."

Historian Miles Yu, a former China adviser to the Trump administration, said Xi has been wrong-footed by the comprehensive cooperation pact he signed with Putin ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

"China is an opportunistic country, and has made a pact with Putin ... an unbreakable strategic partnership," Yu told RFA. "But they knew they couldn't deliver even then, because China and Ukraine have also signed several treaties including nuclear protection treaties and other commitments."

"The CCP knows that it has a very bad reputation now ... but even worse, it is sitting on the fence, and doesn't know which way to jump," he said. "China's international strategy ... has basically been limited to condemnation or praise, with no more flexible options in between."

"That's why the CCP has very few real friends in the world ... they signed so many treaties with Ukraine, and when the critical moment came, it was as if they never existed," Yu said.

'Today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan'

International affairs commentator Wang Hao said Beijing likely sees parallels with Putin's claim on Ukraine and its own threats to invade the democratic island of Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the CCP, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China.

"Putin's entire playbook for Ukraine was, firstly, to say that Ukraine is a part of Russia, and to incite a group of pro-Russian Ukrainians in Ukraine to engage in separatism in Ukraine," Wang said.

"Then they used it as an excuse to send in the troops, to invade and overthrow the legitimate government of Ukraine and engage in a full-scale military occupation," he said.

"It's very similar to what Xi Jinping wants to do in Taiwan ... so the slogan 'today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan' makes a lot of sense," he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden is to send a delegation of former senior defense and security officials to Taiwan on Monday in a sign of support for the island claimed by China after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Reuters reported.

Taiwan has stepped up its alert level, wary of China taking advantage of the global focus on Ukraine.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen used the anniversary of a bloody crackdown by Kuomintang troops on the island's residents in 1947 under the authoritarian rule of Chiang Kai-shek to reaffirm her government's support for Ukraine.

"They are determined to defend their national sovereignty, freedom and democracy," Tsai said. "Only a united country can deal with change and overcome challenges."

"As president, it's my responsibility to unite Taiwan and defend democracy," she said, recalling Taiwan's authoritarian past, and warning people not to take its current freedoms and democratic way of life for granted.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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