Against a monolithic “Chinese perspective” on Ukraine | Live with Lizzi Lee

Politics & Current Affairs

Kristy Bryant, a doctoral candidate in China studies at the University of Oxford, digs deeper into China’s “neutral” stance on Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Lizzi Lee: Hello and welcome to this episode of Live with Lizzi Lee, powered by the China Project. I’m your host, Lizzi. Joining me today is Kristy Bryant. Kristy is a doctoral candidate in China studies at the University of Oxford. Thank you so much for joining me today, Christie.

Kristy Bryant: Thank you.

Lizzi: So, Kristy, for starters, can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your research?

Kristy: Yeah. So I have been researching contemporary China or Greater China for the last three years. I’m currently a second-year doctoral student candidate in area studies at the School of Global and Earth Studies.

And also, my research looks into the development of anti-Western sentiments and discourses on Chinese social media, particularly in the context of the initial outbreak of COVID-19. So from 2020 till like 2022. The project specifically focuses on an Internet term known in the Chinese microblogging sphere as 白左 báizuǒ , which translates to “white left.”

And through discourse analysis, I explore how netizens interact with this term, critique the West. And through that, essentially, I hope to explore a little bit more into, you know, provide more insight into China-U.S. relations and how that’s articulated in the online public sphere beyond the official political discourse that we see from China.

Lizzi: One of your recent papers caught my attention — your paper analyzing the discourse, public discourse in China, about the Chinese perspectives on the Ukrainian war. As you argue so convincingly in a paper, the Chinese view, the so-called Chinese perspective, is not monolithic. I wonder if you can summarize those views for us. How representative is each of those views you discuss in the paper?

Kristy: And I mean, going into the paper, my first thought was, you know, as with all groups and societies of public opinions and perspectives and never quite these whole and homogenous masses that I think we’d like to neatly unpack and deal with effectively. You know, I think it’s very difficult to take an answer that’s not easy to digest.

So in the context of great power politics, it’s very easy to be tempted by the types of commentary that we often consume in the West, to be tempted by something easier to understand as perhaps black and white. So when I came across this kind of question of what Chinese perspectives are on the situation in Ukraine, you know, I thought not only could it not be monolithic, it’s not implausible.

And for an academic researcher like myself, it’s just an incredibly irresponsible and quite a lazy thing to say. You know, of course, the Chinese perspective that we see in the West is predominantly official and state approved. And so the paper wasn’t to discredit that evidence. Not at all. I would never call into doubt those things that we can see quite evidently, but rather to call into question how united that front is and to just spotlight understanding things at face value. Again, not to discredit the public statements or the stuff that we see from state-affiliated media, but just to question, how concrete Chinese supporters or specifically even Beijing, there’s a lot of layers within just China, but also within Beijing itself, which I’ll delve into later. But the obvious evidence that we see is pro-Russia discourse and the government’s official statements of support for the Kremlin. But I think there is a lot of space for scrutiny in terms of the delays and the hesitancy and the just slight back-and-forthing within Chinese news media that suggests that perhaps they want to show in the initial days of the war how to approach this and how to make such comments.

We were waiting… A lot of China watchers in the first couple of days of the first week were waiting for this big statement from Beijing or from some representative to make a big, bold claim about what’s going on. And yet nothing really came through. It all, kind of just gradually teetered in. And so there was never some sense of this is the official stance and this is where we stand on things. And I think that’s overlooked in a lot of the Western, both media and academic cycles, quite frankly.

In the essay, I cite the Carter Center, the U.S.-China Perception monitor for its first representative survey, a survey of online public opinion in China. And I think it surveyed almost 5000 people, and it found that about 75% of respondents agreed that supporting Russia was in China’s national interest. And that’s not shocking. That was not news to anyone. But I think it was expected because of the legacy in the discourse surrounding Sino-Russian relations. But arguably, to say that it was just blanket supporting Russia, it doesn’t really account for those nuances which the survey does actually go into, the rationale behind the support, that being, the most common thing being, for national interest.

And I think if we delve into that deeper, you’ll find there’s a lot of variation in terms of individual degrees of support, but it’s very difficult to do research on that specifically. At the moment it’s just a much more broad data collection in terms of surveys. But I think, arguably that is a really big gap in the literature, and it might continue to be that way for a while. But, you know, I think we should all look at that with a big question mark instead of just jumping to conclusions that they just support, you know, the war crimes or the death toll or whatever it is. I remember the survey also touching on the question of supporting China mediating an end to the conflict, which again, is a very interesting way of phrasing China’s role. Or to say that you’re supporting China mediating an end to the conflict suggests that China has a role as a mediator, which again means many things. But I don’t think that necessarily equates to what we might perceive as respondents supporting the war. It just doesn’t mean that neither. So there’s just some general broad trends that were of interest in that particular survey for me.

And then again, there was an article by Wang Wen in The Diplomat who cited various Chinese, several Chinese websites about the breakdown of stances, public opinion about the war. And very interestingly, it was about 40% that remain neutral. Again, I think that’s a very significant number. Neutrality, to me, is much more interesting than saying you openly just support or don’t support. Neutrality is a lot more complex, and I think it’s just very worthy of closer inspection.

And then the other percentages without 30% supported Russia and 20% supported Ukraine, which again I think are very interesting numbers, too. And yet those who support Ukraine are probably those who have been delving into more alternative sources of news information, which is why I cite examples of YouTube influencers like Wáng Jíxián 王吉贤, who perhaps for younger demographics or people who are more interested in exploring other news media forms, they find other perspectives and perhaps are less likely to be inclined to just follow CGTN, or those big news outlets. But yeah, to summarize, I think within these statistics there’s a lot of place for scrutiny. And yeah, the issue of finding out more information on the causation rationale is a really big, big question. Given the political sensitivities surrounding the war. Neutrality is a position or an answer that is much more complex than I think people would like to deal with.

Lizzi: I wanted to come back to the official view a little bit. Do you think there has been any changes since last year, the starting point of the war, in terms of Beijing’s standpoint on the war, I mean, there’s been some contention even within the scholarly circle on whether Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 has changed his mind on Russia and Putin. What’s your take on that?

Kristy: So initially, in the first days, maybe many weeks of the war, I remember a lot of, you know, as I said, people waiting for this big statement, nothing came. And you know, throughout since, you know, it’s always been a year, it’s just continually been that it’s just China or Beijing specifically has just faced a lot of scorn internationally for not having a consistent position or stance. And I think, you know, even with Xi’s upcoming visit, a potential visit to Russia, there’s still a lot of uncertainty just going into that meeting. I think there’s still so many questions surrounding what’s really going to be discussed and whether there’s going to be hard feelings or anything like that. I mean, even still, you know, in the beginning, in the first month, I think Beijing, you know, Beijing has consistently been providing military aid. But in the initial months of the war, I remember Beijing even providing like humanitarian aid, which was something that I didn’t come across much more recently than I like to admit.

But I think even that is just another small display of a… Not questionable, but it’s just not consistent with the image that we have of Beijing. I think it was the Red Cross’s position for the Red Cross to provide, you know, humanitarian aid from Beijing has to be authorized. That’s still something that has to go through an official procedure, which again, is just very interesting to take note of. In the paper I consider two points specifically. There’s not enough word count for me to delve into more.

But, you know, I first point to China having quite a long, long history of trade relations with both Russia and Ukraine. And Ukraine or Kyiv actually served as a very important source of grain and military equipment for China. And I think there’s a number of articles that have come out over later last year, that the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine in what seemed for Beijing a snap decision. That has been very significant economic losses for China, actually, which is Russia’s biggest trade partner. And I don’t think that is something to be overlooked because it’s a significant economic loss for China is a very, you know, a very big deal. And I think that even with the costs of everything else, of, you know, the worsening of geopolitical tensions and so on, there’s just a lot of things that are at play here. And I think that complicates this picture even more so.

The other slightly more obvious thing then is the likening of Taiwan to Ukraine. And I think that the reason why Beijing can’t quite fully commit to one side to the other is major. In part to this issue of whataboutism? And, you know, if Beijing wanted to not fully support the Kremlin, how would that look when it came to the question of Taiwan and what that looks like? So I think there’s just a lot of hesitancy surrounding these things because of a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of contradictions, more so than there is currently.

Because when it comes to domestic affairs regarding China and its, you know, surrounding territories and the question of Taiwan is such a big one that it’s not just about contradictions anymore. It’s actually very significant. So I think that is another reason why Beijing hasn’t been able to comment too much or as explicitly as we would have liked in it if I could have included more reasons or other things to account for in terms of Beijing’s views and considerations. I would say that China has actually declared multiple times its support for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, which obviously can be scrutinized by many. But they have come out and said this and they have included Ukraine. They have made the point of saying that Ukraine is included in that. And it is even called, you know, Beijing’s also called for all parties to exercise restraint, which I would argue is what it says is they said that they didn’t want to see the current situation in Ukraine, but they didn’t use explicit time, They didn’t condemn Russia. Obviously, that would be too bold of a move. But to say they didn’t want to see what’s going on meant that they weren’t fully happy. You know, and I think, again, that is another example whereby we can see there are deliberate times that you see Beijing holding its tongue, biting his tongue.

And just finally, quickly, there have been a lot of discrepancies and increases within the party elite. Quite interestingly, actually, I think in December, the Chinese ambassador to the European Union, full tongues, stated that Ukraine had put Beijing in a very difficult position and had hurt China’s relations with the EU. During the interview with the South China Morning Post, which I think is just very interesting, this is such an important representative from the Chinese government would say that quite explicitly. And then again, in January, the Financial Times reported an anonymous Chinese official also coming out and commenting that Putin was “crazy,” which I think is just another example of … Of course that person is anonymous, so you’re never really going to be able to vouch for who that is, that if that is someone who is in the senior, you know, it’s an official that someone who’s pretty senior up in the party. That is quite a bold comment to make from someone in that position.

And I remember, I think towards the end of the article, something that really struck me was that this official also commented that China shouldn’t simply follow Russia, which I think answers to this question of whether China is really contemplating what it should say because they don’t want to basically break ties with someone who supposedly meant to be their greatest ally in this big power dynamic. But clearly, there are other feelings and sentiments within Beijing that are much more complicated than we think.

Lizzi: All right. Thank you so much. This is so helpful. What I will do is I will include a link to your paper in the show notes section. Our audience can take a deeper look at your analysis and research. Thank you so much to Kristy for this very helpful conversation.

lizzi lee