Reluctant to face the West, China is rallying domestic sympathy for Russia

As Russian troops swept through Ukraine, officials in China met behind closed doors to study a Communist Party-produced documentary praising Russian President Vladimir V Putin as a hero.

The humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, the video states, was the result of efforts by the United States to destroy its legitimacy. With soaring music and sunny scenes from modern-day Moscow, the documentary praises Mr Putin for restoring Stalin’s standing as a great war leader and renewing his patriotic pride in Russia’s past.

China presents itself to the world as a principled spectator of the war in Ukraine, not choosing sides but simply seeking peace. At home, however, the Chinese Communist Party is driving a campaign that portrays Russia as a suffering victim rather than an aggressor and defends China’s strong ties with Moscow as vital.

Chinese universities have organized courses to give students a “proper understanding” of the war, often emphasizing Russia’s grievances with the West. Party newspapers have published a number of op-eds blaming the United States for the conflict.

Across the country, the Communist Party has organized meetings for officials to view and discuss historical documentation. The 101-minute video, completed last year, makes no mention of the war in Ukraine but argues that Russia is right to be concerned about neighbors who have seceded from the Soviet Union. It describes Mr Putin as purging Russia of the political poisons that killed the Soviet Union.

“The most powerful weapon the West possesses, apart from nuclear weapons, are the methods it uses in ideological struggle,” says the narrator of the documentary in a stern voice, quoting a Russian scholar. The documentary was intended for internal viewing — that is, for an audience selected by party officials rather than for general release — but the video and script recently surfaced online in China.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, “some countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Transcaucasia have become the foremost positions for the West to contain and interfere with Russia.”

China’s leaders have long used the Soviet collapse as a cautionary tale, but Mr. Xi has given that story a more urgent, ominous twist. In doing so, he has hailed Mr. Putin as an authoritarian colleague opposed to Western dominance and demonstrated to the Chinese people that Mr. Xi has a partner in his cause.

China has refused to condemn Mr Putin for the war that has killed thousands of civilians. Despite pressure from other world leaders to use its influence on Moscow to help end the crisis, Beijing has done little except call for peace. And on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed his country’s commitment to strong ties with Moscow during talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in China.

The Biden administration has portrayed the war as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Chinese officials are building a counter-narrative that American-led dominance is the source of conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere. They see China and Russia as threatened by the “color revolution,” the party’s term for insurgencies backed by Western governments. President Biden’s recent comments calling for Putin’s ouster are likely to bolster Beijing’s view.

“They actually believe their own narrative of color revolutions and tend to see this whole situation as a US-led color revolution to overthrow Putin,” said Christopher K. Johnson, president of the China Strategies Group and a former Central Intelligence analyst Agency Chinese Politics.

“Both domestically and internationally, Xi has pushed this dark narrative ever since he took power,” Mr Johnson said in an interview. “It allows him to justify his accumulation of power and the changes he’s made by creating that sense of struggle and danger.”

The documentary shows the collapse of the Soviet Union as a lesson for Chinese officials not to be seduced by Western liberalism. China, the documentary says, must never follow the course of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet Union leader to begin glasnost, or openness and engagement with the West.

In 2013, propaganda officials under Mr. Xi released a documentary about the lessons learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union. This latest take offers an even more conspiratorial interpretation.

The documentary attributes the demise of the Soviet Union to political liberalization, particularly what Beijing calls “historical nihilism,” or highlights the mistakes and misdeeds of the Communist Party. It accuses historians critical of the Soviet revolution of fabricating estimated death tolls in Stalin’s purges in the many millions.

Stalin, it is argued, was a modernizing leader whose purges went too far but were initially “something of a necessity” in the face of the threat to Soviet rule. It suggests that rock music and modern fashion were symptoms of the moral rot that set in later.

“The only lesson you’ve learned from all of this is that you don’t allow freedom of expression,” said Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who studies Chinese and Soviet history, “because that kind of freedom inevitably leads to a loss of political control and that creates chaos.”

The documentary credits Mr. Putin with restoring the Russian spirit.

It shows Mr Putin marching in a parade marking Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany and young Russians kissing a banner bearing his portrait. Former leaders in Moscow – notably Mr. Gorbachev and Nikita S. Khrushchev – are portrayed as impostors, enchanted by the siren song of liberal reforms and Western supremacy.

The documentary “Historical Nihilism and the Collapse of the Soviet Union” was the centerpiece of a months-long campaign targeting party officials that has been ongoing since Russia began its all-out attack on Ukraine on February 24, local government websites say. Officials supervising the performances are often described in official announcements as urging cadres to maintain firm loyalty to Mr. Xi.

“Loving a party and its leader is not a personality cult,” Zheng Keyang, a former deputy director of the party’s Central Policy Research Office and advisor on the documentary, said in a discussion of the documentary released by a pro-party website this month .

The Chinese leadership has debated why the Soviet Union fell apart since its dissolution in 1991. More than his predecessors, Mr. Xi has attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to the West’s lack of ideological backbone and political subversion.

“If you have the worldview that you see in this documentary, you could tell your own story that Russians face a real threat from the West,” Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, told ElitePolitics studying in China and China Russia said in an interview.

The study campaign aims to instill loyalty in cadres ahead of a Chinese Communist Party congress later this year where Mr Xi appears to be claiming a third term.

Political allegiance has become more important for Mr Xi as Beijing tries to contain Covid outbreaks with strict lockdowns and manage a slowing economy. China’s foreign policy has come under scrutiny after some Chinese scholars published essays criticizing Beijing’s refusal to condemn Mr Putin.

Many of the critical essays have been deleted and the party has become more active in defending its stance in recent weeks. Editorials in Communist Party newspapers have reinforced the Chinese leadership’s argument that the United States and NATO are the real culprits in Ukraine for undermining Russian security.

“It was the United States that personally lit the fuse of the current conflagration between Russia and Ukraine,” said a series of editorials in Liberation Army Daily, the military’s main newspaper.

Universities and colleges have organized indoctrination lectures for students, suggesting officials are concerned young, educated Chinese may be receptive to criticism that Beijing is being too lenient with Mr Putin.

Liu Zuokui, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told an audience of college students in eastern China that the war arose out of “Nato’s eastward expansion, which limited Russia’s space to survive,” according to an online summary of the lecture.

China, another speaker told physicists in Beijing, must protect its strategic partnership with Russia from “intense shocks and impacts.”

The party’s demands for conformity in the crisis will make it more difficult for dissenting opinions to coalesce in opposition to Mr. Xi.

“There’s an ‘either we hang together or we hang apart’ attitude that comes into play,” Mr Johnson, the former CIA analyst, said of the Chinese leadership. “If it’s a strong nationalist approach, who in the party doesn’t want to be a good nationalist?” Reluctant to face the West, China is rallying domestic sympathy for Russia

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