Several days ago the U.S.-China Perception Monitor published an essay in both English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a prominent think tanker in Shanghai. It argues that the war in Ukraine is bound to go poorly for Russia and thus China must moderate its support for Putin’s failing regime lest the post-Putin world turn against the PRC.
This essay has gotten a lot of play in China hand circles. People are eager for any news that might hasten Russian defeat. A decision by Beijing to retreat from a growing partnership with Moscow would certainly slow Putin’s cause. But there is no evidence this essay will have any such effect: this week the Chinese have agreed to ship supplies and weapons Russia, Hu Wei’s essay was scrubbed from the Chinese internet shortly after it went up, and as of today, the U.S.-China Perception Monitor is now censored in China. The highest circle of decision making in Beijing clearly does not fear events will unfold as Hu predicts.
In my mind, this essay is less interesting for what it says about Chinese intentions towards Russia and Ukraine than what it says about Chinese perceptions of the United States. If Hu has any moral objections to Putin’s war in Ukraine, he does not state them. His argument is stated purely in terms of China’s national interests. Here is the disaster Hu believes will unfold if the Chinese don’t pressure Putin to the negotiating table before his political position collapses:
[If Putin falls or is dragged into a multiyear insurgency] the United States would regain leadership in the Western world… the US and Europe would form a closer community of shared future, and American leadership in the Western world will rebound.
The “Iron Curtain” would fall again not only from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, but also to the final confrontation between the Western-dominated camp and its competitors. The West will draw the line between democracies and authoritarian states, defining the divide with Russia as a struggle between democracy and dictatorship… It will be a life-and-death battle between those for and against Western democracy. The unity of the Western world under the Iron Curtain will have a siphon effect on other countries: the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will be consolidated, and other countries like Japan will stick even closer to the U.S., which will form an unprecedentedly broad democratic united front.
The power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and U.S. influence in the non-Western world will increase. After the Russo-Ukrainian War, no matter how Russia achieves its political transformation, it will greatly weaken the anti-Western forces in the world. The scene after the 1991 Soviet and Eastern upheavals may repeat itself: theories on “the end of ideology” may reappear, the resurgence of the third wave of democratization will gain momentum, and more third world countries will embrace the West. The West will possess more “hegemony” both in terms of military power and in terms of values and institutions, its hard power and soft power will reach new heights.
China will become more isolated under the established framework. For the above reasons, if China does not take proactive measures to respond, it will encounter further containment from the US and the West. Once Putin falls, the U.S. will no longer face two strategic competitors but only have to lock China in strategic containment. Europe will further cut itself off from China; Japan will become the anti-China vanguard; South Korea will further fall to the U.S.; Taiwan will join the anti-China chorus, and the rest of the world will have to choose sides under herd mentality. China will not only be militarily encircled by the U.S., NATO, the QUAD, and AUKUS, but also be challenged by Western values and systems.1
Hu Wei, “Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice,” trans. Liu Jiaqi, U.S. China Perception Monitor (12 March 2022).
There are many interesting things in this passage. The phrase “community of shared future” (命运共同体), sometimes also translated as “community of common destiny,” is how Xi Jinping and other CPC functionaries characterize the future world they wish to build by with their overseas economic and foreign policy initiatives (like the Belt and Road Initiative). This is usually described as a “win-win” (双赢 ) strategy where everyone involved benefits; Hu’s worries that the war might lead to greater integration between America and Europe suggests that some in China understand the concept in more zero-sum terms.
Just as interesting is the threat that Hu suggests will emerge if Russian power is crushed by a reunified West. Hu fears ideological pressure as much as economic or military coercion. Just as dangerous as being surrounded by Western alliances will be the ascendance of “western systems and values.” The insecurity of the 1990s is the boogeyman that must be avoided.
Those who think of Chinese history in purely material terms will not understand why Hu would weave a nightmare out of the ‘90s. Chinese economic heft and military power grew in the 1990s—unlike in Russia, the Chinese ‘90s were not an age of disorder and contraction. Yet many party elites experienced this decade, especially the diplomatic freeze that followed the Tienanmen massacre, as fraught with danger. Dictatorships across East Asia were transitioning to democracy, Communist parties across the world were collapsing, and the global intelligentsia believed that history had run its course. Xi Jinping is always telling cadres that the first step of formulating policy is “grasping the great trends” (抓住大趋势) of history. For a decade or so those trends pointed towards the fall of his Party. This era fostered a sense of insecurity that motivates Beijing decision making to this day.2
Key references for those who would like to explore this further include: Matthew Johnson, “Safeguarding Socialism: The Origins, Evolution and Expansion of China’s Total Security Paradigm” (Prague: Sinopsis, November 6, 2020) and “Securitizing Culture in Post-Deng China: An Evolving National Strategic Paradigm, 1994–2014,” Propaganda in the World and Local Conflicts 4, no. 1 (2017): 62–80; Nadège Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, NBR Special Report (The National Bureau of Asian Research: Seattle, 2020); Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), entire, but for this framing see especially pp. 47-65; John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 463-578; Samantha Hoffman, Programming China: The Communist Party’s Autonomic Approach to Managing State Security (2017), section II.
It is hard to judge how committed Hu is to this framework of analysis without reading more of his oeuvre. It is possible he is really just a closet liberal who is grasping for any argument he thinks might bring some balance to U.S.-China relations. Either way, he chose the arguments he thought would be most convincing in Beijing. Readers of this blog—and my other columns—will not be surprised with the fears Hu articulates here: the threat of ideological pressure is something party officials and sympathetic intellectuals worry about incessantly. (You can see some of my past writing on this theme here, here, and here). Hu’s essay is a reminder that even as China ascends to new heights, the shadow of the 1990s still darkens the minds of Chinese strategists.
Readers interested in exploring more of my writing on the nature of U.S.-China competition may find the posts “Yes, We Are in an Ideological Competition With China,” “The World That China Wants,” “Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,” Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” and “Give No Heed to the Walking Dead,” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible. —————————————————————————————