Support and justification for the war in Ukraine draw upon a wide range of ideas (even myths) about international relations, economics, and politics. When reflecting on the current situation, the causes and consequences of the war, the present, future and past, respondents employ a variety of constructs and imagery to make sense of what is unfolding. China — or rather, the constructed image of China — plays an important role in shaping the perspective of Russians who express support for, or who do not oppose, the war in Ukraine.
Though I have encountered references to China when discussing the war in both social networks and personal communications, for this text I focus on in-depth interviews collected as part of the Public Sociology Lab project, which explores how Russians perceive the war in Ukraine. (The full-scale invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, 2022; interviews were collected from the end of February 2022 to December 2022.) After analyzing 301 interviews, I found that those who support the war or do not oppose it (122 interviews and 40 follow-up interviews) mention China mainly in two contexts. The first is in response to questions concerning what kind of future the respondents would like for Russia. The second is while reflecting on China as an ally of Russia. During the interviews, respondents were asked about their perspective on why the war started, their attitudes towards the conflict, sanctions, the potential for a nuclear strike, the future of Russia, and their vision of how they see the war ending. As the interviewers did not explicitly mention China in their questions, the topic of China was spontaneously introduced by the respondents themselves.
Just like in China
The mention of China in discussions about what kind of future proponents of the war want for Russia provides an opportunity to analyze their ideas (and myths) about China. An analysis of respondents’ statements shows that their image of China makes it possible to create an optimistic picture of Russia’s future. Such a picture of Russia’s future is important, since for many respondents support or non-opposition to the war is based precisely on confidence or hope that Russia has chosen the right path. For some who support the war, including those who initially took a neutral or uncertain position but then became so-called “new patriots” (“need to continue the war to the end, to support your own country, and not to feel guilty”), it is this vision of the future of Russia that becomes the basis of support. The war is seen either as something inevitable or as an event that has already happened, an event that gives Russia a chance for a revival and the acquisition of “true independence” (parts 2.1.4, 2.1.6 in the second report of PS Lab — at the moment only available in Russian; the first report — interviews from March to June 2022 — is available in English here).
The idea of China’s economic independence or self-sufficiency looks especially attractive to informants. For instance, to the question “What kind of future does Russia need and how to achieve it?”, in November 2022, a 32-year-old resident of the Yaroslavl Region answers:
I personally do not see any other way out [of the situation] than some kind of a big leap forward, […] so that later we can have some autarky, like China, so that we can produce our own goods, or so that we would have trade partners, like the Chinese, who we could live off. There is no other way, otherwise — new sanctions and that’s it.
In this context, the term “autarky” is used not as a theoretical concept meaning an extremely closed economy, but rather as a desired economic self-sufficiency of the country, symbolizing independence and dignity.
Another respondent, a 45-year-old resident of Arkhangelsk Region (in the north of Russia), in April 2022 gives an even more detailed answer to the same question about the future of Russia:
[I would like] for the country to have its own factories, its own production of absolutely everything, regardless of oil and gas. A fully self-sufficient country, both in terms of energy and finance, and with a convertible ruble. That is, to be a country that would be independent. For example, if we look at China. At some point America declared economic war on China. It was a big deal. It was a long time ago, back in the 1990s. And China took on this challenge and took this economic war so seriously that when you look at China today, you think: yes, that’s a really well-established, independent power. And we [Russia], by the way, used to help this power with everything, when it was a backward country.
The interesting thing about such quotes is not that people can make mistakes in factual information: Trump declared economic/trade war on China in 2018, but by that time the so-called Chinese economic miracle had already taken place, and China had shown the world’s highest economic growth rates for 33 years. The interesting thing is that self-sufficiency and economic independence, taken almost in absolute terms (“its own factories, its own production of absolutely everything, a convertible ruble, energy and financial independence”), is the future desired by a respondent who supports the war (not, for example, expansion of territories). Expected or hoped-for economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance (“like in China”) — guarantee the country the desirable status of “well-established independent power” and become an important element in justifying support for the war.
At the same time, in using this image of China as a reference point, it is not only the concept of economic self-sufficiency that is attractive to respondents, but also the concepts of “isolation” and “closedness”. Some respondents who support the war are not afraid of Russia’s isolation, for example, in the field of education, because they actually attribute China’s success to isolation. Answering the question about the risk of isolation and how this may affect education in Russia, in November 2022, a 39-year-old respondent argues as follows:
To put it simply, in the Soviet Union there was the Iron Curtain, yet we had the best specialists. Or we can compare this on the level of other republics. I mean, China is also isolated. But look at it now: over the last 10 years, China has grown dramatically, it has surpassed us [Russia].
China’s political system is extremely closed: it is almost unknown how political decisions are made or how intra-party struggles take place. But economically, since 1979, China has not been an isolated country. It is an open country without an Iron Curtain, where it is precisely the flow of people, ideas, and money both into and out of the country — through the overseas Chinese diaspora and multiple international projects — that has ensured China’s development. China, as one of the main beneficiaries of globalization, has maximized the benefits for itself from both openness to investment and the volume of exports to other countries. It only started talking seriously about self-sufficiency in the high-tech sector after cooling relations with the United States (such as the US ban on the purchase of 5G technology from Huawei in 2019 and the subsequent ban on the sale of chips to China).
Answers such as those quoted above demonstrate why some supporters of the war may not be concerned about the possibility of complete isolation of Russia because they believe it could actually lead to Russia’s development, independence, and self-sufficiency. They view China’s success as proof that isolation and closedness can be the right path, despite evidence to the contrary.
Many experts point out that Kremlin propaganda has been unable to produce a vision of the future to offer to Russians. Kremlin propaganda promotes its agenda against “the Collective West” (NATO, Europe, the United States), but does not provide an alternative ideology or any clear idea of where the country is going. In such an ideological vacuum, for some, the image of China becomes a reference point for successful development of Russia, and thus justifies the regime’s actions. In Russia today, this type of image is ideologically approved: “Russia’s turn to the East” has been going on for 10 years, Russian-Chinese cooperation is positively viewed in the propaganda, and China is currently seen as a good ally. Circulating past cliché about China as the “Soviet Union’s younger brother” makes it possible to imagine an affinity between China and Russia, and the belief that China too is “isolated” makes it possible to believe that the path chosen by the current Russian regime is similar to the path once chosen by China. Moreover, the resentment towards the United States/“Collective West” that some Russians have prompts them to look for something to serve as the basis for their adversarial position against the West. “Traditional values” preached by propaganda in many cases are not effective, but a mental alliance with a strong player — China — gives a more solid ideological basis.
The reason why China — a country very different from Russia in terms of demography, economic strategy, and political governance, not to mention social structure and culture — can be seen as a reference point for Russia’s future is an imagined historical and ideological affinity between Russia and China. The fact that China is a big non-Western authoritarian country (like Russia) makes this imagined affinity easier, but it is the common communist/socialist past with China that enables respondents to build the logic in which economically successful and “fully self-sufficient” China now becomes an image for the future of Russia. It becomes some kind of alternative history of the USSR: without the collapse in 1991, without that period of fascination with “Western values and democracy,” without the traumas of the 1990s and the mistakes after which “the West stopped having respect or fear for us.” (Respondents do not talk about North Korea, Iran, or Belarus as appealing examples of isolation or autarky. These countries can be mentioned as possible allies of Russia, but having not demonstrated economic success, they are not mentioned as reference points for Russia’s future development.)
The image of a successful China is also used when some respondents talk about censorship and state violence in Russia and do not express any disapproval of it. The reason is that the economic success of China is attributed not to its multifaceted economic policy and pragmatism but to its “ruthlessness” and “dictatorship.” For instance, in October 2022, a respondent who is originally from Vladivostok (in the east of Russia) but now resides in St. Petersburg argues the following:
Now the Chinese, they feel great, they simply don’t care [about current international problems]. They managed to isolate themselves from the rest of the world for some time, and now nothing happens in the world without China. Take even iPhones, the phones that you and I are using to communicate, they are all made in China. Leaders of the country [China] simply started focusing on their people at some point. Yeah, things are ruthless there, they still have executions there. But, damn, there is no such thing as democracy, and there never will be. Dictatorship and tyranny — for some reason, these are the only things that develop countries.
Both “democracy” and “dictatorship” here are terms that do not have a concrete meaning, but do have enormous symbolic power. “There is no such thing as democracy, and there never will be” is the emotional phraseology of a person who believed in a miracle, but the miracle never happened. The phraseology where the denial and impossibility of an ideal construct drives to the opposite pole (“dictatorship and tyranny — for some reason, these are the only things that develop countries”). Such thinking — possibly full of disappointment and confusion — also represents a simplified and naive view of the world. To the West of Russia — democracy, but there is disappointment there, it is all mirage there. We have been there, and we did not like it. And to the East of Russia (China) — dictatorship and tyranny, and they develop countries. We have been there, we should get back there.
The appeal of “dictatorship” and “tyranny” operates more generally within a cult of strength shared by many respondents who support the war in Ukraine. The image of strength is also an important element in how people see China. In March 2022, another respondent from St. Petersburg, while talking about sanctions imposed on Russia, uses China as an example to make his point:
They can’t talk to China like that, so China does whatever it wants. China took over Tibet without having to suffer any consequences, China took over Inner Mongolia without having to suffer any consequences. China is now doing ethnic cleansing and seriously looking at Taiwan. Why? They can do that, because they are too strong. […] Putin has been disliked by the West for decades, but Western companies were not leaving Russia. And again, look at China, Western companies have had no issue doing business in China. They continue working there without any problems. No one is trying through sanctions to make Chinese people overthrow the Communist Party, although [western companies/countries] might not like it either.
Global business often is unethical and willing to do business with anyone, as long as reputational do not translate into financial costs, and that makes the respondent wonder: Western companies might not have liked Putin before the war, but they stayed in Russia. Business stays in China no matter what. So the solution to this problem is to become “like China”: stronger and more powerful.
It is useful to mention here that the Chinese market, in terms of both production and consumption, is indeed a really powerful actor. According to some estimates, in 2018 China’s middle class was 707 million people, and that is a highly attractive market for global companies that can turn a blind eye to human rights violations in China in pursuit of profit. But even following this cynical logic, it is not clear what Russia with its declining (at unknown pace) population of 140 million people has to do with it.
China as an ally
China is mentioned as an ally most often in discussion of recently imposed sanctions on Russia. Respondents who express support or non-opposition to the war in Ukraine express a positive attitude to the role of China as ally and partner, and have an optimistic view on future cooperation between Russia and China. For example, in March 2022, a 60-year old female respondent from Moscow talked about sanctions in the following way:
Russia is a big country with lots of natural resources. Sooner or later we will get out of this crisis. I don’t want to use bad language, but the more they put down Russia, the more resilient it gets, I think. We won’t be able to produce everything we need, like automobiles, for example. But there’s the East, there’s South Korea, China.
And here is a response from a 41-year-old female respondent, also from Moscow, in April 2022:
With the sanctions, I think they [the West] are biting their own tail, and punishing themselves with these sanctions. That’s a difficult path for us, for sure. I hope we will be able to stand strong despite the sanctions. And I really hope that for those things that we haven’t produced ourselves yet or have forgotten how to make since Soviet times, that their production will be revived. Or we will find ways to cooperate with China, India, so that we can pull through this difficult situation, and not lose, but only gain.
In October 2022, a respondent from Yoshkar-Ola (central Russia) gives credit to Putin for forming a “major coalition” in the East, yet points out that there are doubts about China as an ally:
First of all, we have really boosted the entire Eastern region, uniting it into one powerful force. Another major coalition has emerged in the world thanks to this. And the idea was actually Putin’s. We have very good relations with China. Well, the Chinese are of course looking for their own benefits, but at the moment at least our relations with them are still quite friendly.
It is noteworthy that while talking about China as an ally, the respondent emphasizes the temporary nature of the current moment, saying that “at the moment at least our relations with them are still quite friendly.”
Some respondents realize that China is a more powerful and influential country than Russia, and that Russia enters this relationship in a weak position. In March 2022, a respondent from Kazan (western Russia) says that Russia cannot compete economically with two “superpowers” (the United States and China), and that is why it should “focus on inside the country and work inside its own economy and keep developing it.” In the meantime (while the economy is still weak) we “should stick to our partner.”
How should Russia act in this situation? We should stick to our partner. We’ve been telling China for a long time that we are friends. And China also considers us their ally and friend. In this situation, one must be friends with the strong. When China was small and weak, it was friends with the strong Soviet Union, which helped China throughout many years. […] Now we have swapped positions.
The same respondent, in a follow-up interview in October 2022, talking about how the world has changed since February 24, 2022, continues to see advantages for Russia in the current international situation. Opposition to American influence becomes the main theme (“the world now understands that it doesn’t have to give in to Yanks” [the derogatory word pindos is used]). In such a situation, the dynamics of Russia-China relations are considered solely in the current moment, and all risks are postponed till later in exchange for having allies now:
Even here in our city, you can now easily buy yuan at the bank without any restrictions. Chinese companies, so to speak, already have us in yuan. So when China begins to take us over, it will become a problem between China and Russia. And that will be a different issue. But for now, business is quietly going on, as is diplomacy with eastern countries.
The phrase “when China begins to take us over” is a reference to fears that have been circulating in Russian society for some time that China may take over parts of Russian territory. But these fears circulate as an abstract idea. On the one hand, it is an abstract idea devoid of historical context. The memory of the Damansky Island conflict (the Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969) is either weak or has not been actively shaped and boosted by propaganda. A new demarcation of the China-Russian border took place in 2005 with Putin already in power. This entailed the transfer to China of 337 square kilometers of land together with plots and summer cottages that used to belong to Russian citizens. This memory is still vivid for residents of the regions of South Siberia and the Far East, but is barely known to those who live far from the border with China. On the other hand, it is an abstract idea devoid of contemporary context. In order to understand how China can “take over” Russia in future (or has already been taking over), it is necessary to thoroughly analyze the economic and social situation in regions bordering China, and the Russian economy in general. But the state media and propaganda are not interested in such an analysis.
In relation to such statements, it is essential to emphasize two points. First, overall animosity towards the United States (and general resentment towards “the West”), together with current war fever, becomes a valid reason to plunge into a relationship with a country, whose motives and strategies raise suspicion. Second, there is a deliberate focus on the present moment and acknowledgment that contemplation and analysis of the situation are postponed to an indefinite point in the future. Unwillingness or inability to consider the consequences of their own actions and those of the country’s leadership channel discussion of the real geopolitical situation and the real consequences of today’s decisions into “wait and see” mode (more about this is here). Thoughts driven by resentment and reflexes also limit the temporality of decision-making in such complex questions as building future strategy. In October 2022, a respondent from St. Petersburg, who admires Ukrainian culture yet supports the war and sees advantages of it for Russia, reflects on their own position in the current situation:
Our views change throughout our lives. It is only on my deathbed that I will be able to say how mine will be formed. And now anything can happen… Perhaps it will turn out that Uncle Putin sold us all to the Chinese, and all of this is being done to create new biolaboratories in Ukraine to turn us into cyborgs. Who knows? There are all sorts of fantastic theories. But for now, we watch and help in any way we can.
The space for decision-making is pushed back and doesn’t even begin where a red line might be, but is relegated to the category of the fantastic (maybe Uncle Putin sold us all to the Chinese […]to create new biolaboratories in Ukraine to turn us into cyborgs).
The beliefs held by most Russians concerning China are influenced by texts and factual information that circulate within a media space defined and controlled by the Kremlin. Russian propaganda is the main source for the myths about China espoused by Russians who do not oppose the war. This includes the limited availability of extensive or critical information about China in Russian state media, and, at times, simple reprinting of Chinese propaganda. Rather than providing comprehensive and nuanced discussion about China, the narrative presented is one of success without explanations, a tale of wishful thinking.
The constructed image of China — portrayed as isolated, self-sufficient, and economically successful, with the ability to dictate terms from a position of power — is also a desired future for Russia. This particular image not only fills the ideological void when envisioning the future of Russia, but also serves to legitimize and justify the ongoing war. It looks past and beyond the realities and horrors of war, into the distance towards an imaginary future. This perspective provides a sense of comfort by fostering belief in a planned and rational progress towards self-sufficiency, “true independence,” and economic prosperity. Furthermore, reliance on the image of another country — a strong China as a reference point — also enables a feeling of collective opposition: we are not alone, we are together, with China, against the West. It relies on an imagined “just-so” story of another country’s success, which has little to do with Russia’s own potential for future development, nor, for that matter, with the real history of China’s success. Ironically, following the lead of the admittedly stronger ally in the Russia–China relationship (“we should stick to our partner,” “one must be friends with the strong”), while acknowledging the risks of such cooperation (“when China begins to take over us, it will be a different issue”), contradicts the desired ideals of “self-sufficiency” and “independence” that form the bedrock of support for the war. Adopting a “wait and see” mindset not only defers difficult decisions that must eventually be made, but also absolves from taking responsibility.