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Analysis: China needs to drop Putin now, scholar insists (Nikkei Asia)

19 March 2022


Nikkei Asia title: Analysis: China needs to drop Putin now, scholar insists
Nikkei Asia subtitle: Government adviser says Beijing needs to be on the right side of history
By: KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer
Date: 17 March 2022

” “China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible.”

These words written by a prominent Chinese scholar have dominated the discussion among Chinese foreign and security experts in recent days.

The bold proposal to sever ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin comes from Hu Wei, a political scientist affiliated with the Counselor’s Office of the State Council — China’s government led by Premier Li Keqiang.

The article’s footnote is noteworthy. It states that Hu doubles as chairman of the Shanghai Public Policy Research Association. The author states up top that the article does not represent any party but the views of a scholar. Yet Hu’s position — a scholar with access to Beijing’s Zhongnanhai area, where Chinese leaders have their offices — signals he has many supporters behind him.

It also cannot be a coincidence that the article calling for a fundamental reversal of China’s Ukraine policy was made public just before the seven-hour marathon meeting between top diplomat Yang Jiechi and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome.

Hu gets straight to the point.

Even if Russia manages to seize Ukraine and set up a puppet government, Western sanctions and a rebellion within Ukraine will make it difficult for Putin to achieve his expected goals, Hu wrote.

Russia’s domestic economy will be unsustainable and will eventually be dragged down, he said, predicting this will happen within a few years.

China should avoid playing both sides, give up being neutral and choose the global mainstream position, Hu said. If China plays a part in ending the war — potentially a nuclear war — its tense relations with Western nations will ease and it will be able to emerge from isolation, he concluded.

Putin’s blitzkrieg has failed. The international coalition against Russia is stronger than assumed. Under these circumstances, Hu is recommending that China end its collusion with Russia quickly and switch to the winning side.

The article is dated March 5, the opening day of an annual session of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. Marked as “for the judgment and reference of the highest decision-making level in China,” the document was distributed among the leadership, which includes Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the nation’s president.

A week later, on March 12, the article was published on the U.S.-China Perception Monitor, an online publication run by the Carter Center.

By the time the article reached Chinese leaders, 10 days had passed since Russia had invaded Ukraine. It was clear that what Russia hoped would be a lightning operation to topple the Ukrainian administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had failed.

The article was taken down from China’s internet only after it had been read internally for as long as a week. It is safe to say Hu and the publishers were confident they would not be punished for releasing the frank analysis.

Hu is a professor at the school of Marxism, which is affiliated with a party school in Shanghai. He is also an analyst at the Shanghai Academy of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

His local connections hint at links to political forces based in Shanghai. He is also a member of the Charhar Institute, a largely independent think tank based in Hebei Province’s Zhangjiakou.

“Russia’s special military operation against Ukraine has caused great controversy in China,” Hu noted at the beginning of the article, confirming what was widely believed to be the case. Supporters and opponents are “divided into two implacably opposing sides.”

The fierce response to the article proves this point. “This individual is a civil servant with the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office,” a leftist within the party said. “If he is publicly waving a pro-U.S., anti-Russia flag, it is a big problem.”

Said another: “They are ostensibly his personal views. But judging from his title, there are influential leaders behind him.”

China’s extreme left, otherwise known as “Left Maoists,” had been forced to keep a low profile until the era of Hu Jintao, Xi’s immediate predecessor. Now, they are at the center of the China-Russia partnership, cheering for Putin.

As was pointed out two weeks ago in this column, disagreements over Ukraine exist even among the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body.

After Xi met Putin on Feb. 4, the top seven discussed the Ukraine issue intensively while the Beijing Olympics were underway. The seven are not on the same page.

Under the policy it has so far stuck to, China prefers to use the term “special military operation” rather than “war” in state media. China also takes the position that although the interests of Russia and Ukraine should be considered, the West is to blame for the current situation because it tried to expand NATO eastward.

Furthermore, China also thought that causing trouble with Russia, which appeared to be on the verge of a victory, would be foolish.

China expected that the final outcome of the Ukraine war would become certain and fighting would also end before March 4, the opening day of the Beijing Paralympics. These expectations were betrayed.

China’s stubbornness has hurt its international image.

Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympic Committee, pleaded for peace at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Paralympics.

But when state-run China Central Television broadcast Parsons’ speeches, it either omitted the translation or altered the wording for the parts referring to peace.

The contradiction in logic was also apparent in Li Keqiang’s last news conference as premier.

Speaking to reporters on March 11, Li did not take a question from Russian media to prevent China’s image from worsening. Li also made no reference to friendship with “no limits” between China and Russia, which was confirmed in a joint statement issued on Feb. 4 by Xi and Putin.

Although Hu’s controversial article is difficult to access, that has not stopped a heated online debate about it from taking place in China.

The debate exposes the obvious gap between Chinese state media, which continue to report in a pro-Russia manner, and public opinion.

As disagreements within China emerged, the meeting between high-ranking U.S. and Chinese officials in Rome was set. Sullivan conveyed concerns about China’s support for Russia to Yang. This came after the Financial Times reported that after the invasion Russia asked China for military equipment and additional economic assistance.

Yang told Sullivan that China would support talks for a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. But Chinese state media did not report if Yang replied to the U.S. demand to refrain from supporting Russia.

It is difficult for Xi, who signed the Feb. 4 China-Russia joint statement, to quickly reverse a policy China has so far adhered to.

But the fact that China held high-level talks with the U.S. — about which Washington had reportedly begun to sound out Beijing two months ago — at this stage shows a slight change on the Chinese side.

Yang did not directly criticize the U.S. over Ukraine or object to sanctions against Russia, according to the readout. This stands in contrast to his behavior a year ago in Alaska, where he publicly lashed out at the U.S. delegation.

In his controversial article, Hu said that as of March 5 China was running out of time to make a decision. “There is still a window period of one or two weeks before China loses its wiggle room,” he wrote. “China must act decisively.”

Is it a coincidence that the Yang-Sullivan meeting took place less than two weeks after Hu’s proposal? China is now at a crucial crossroads.”

Note Nikkei Asia:
Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He was the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize.



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