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Bristling against the West, China shows domestic sympathy for Russia


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

The humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, the video says, is the result of US efforts to destroy its legitimacy. With swelling music and sunny scenes of modern-day Moscow, the documentary praises Mr. Putin for restoring Stalin’s position as a great warlord and renewing patriotic pride in Russia’s past. .

In the eyes of the world, China presents itself as a principled spectator of the war in Ukraine, not taking sides, simply seeking peace. At home, however, the Chinese Communist Party is waging a campaign that paints Russia as a long-suffering victim rather than an aggressor and champions China’s close ties with Moscow as vital.

Chinese universities have held courses to give students a “correct understanding” of the war, often highlighting Russia’s grievances towards the West. Party newspapers published a series of comments blaming the United States for the conflict.

Across the country, the Communist Party held sessions for officials to watch and discuss the historical documentary. The 101-minute video, which was completed last year, does not mention the war in Ukraine but says Russia is right to worry about neighbors that have split from the Soviet Union. He describes Mr. Putin as cleansing Russia of the political toxins that killed the Soviet Union.

“The most powerful weapon the West has is, apart from nuclear weapons, the methods they use in the ideological struggle,” says the stern-voiced narrator of the documentary, quoting a Russian scholar. The documentary was marked for internal viewing – meaning an audience chosen by party officials and not for mainstream release – but the video and script have recently surfaced online in China.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, he says, “certain countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Transcaucasia have become forward positions for the West to contain and interfere in Russia.” .

Chinese leaders have long used the Soviet collapse as a cautionary tale, but Mr. Xi has given that narrative a more urgent and ominous twist. In doing so, he embraced Mr. Putin as an authoritarian colleague aligned against Western domination, demonstrating to the Chinese people that Mr. Xi has a partner in their cause.

China has refused to condemn Mr. Putin for the war, which has killed thousands of civilians. Despite pressure from other world leaders to use their influence over Moscow to help end the crisis, Beijing has only asked for peace. And on Thursday, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, expressed his country’s commitment to forging close ties with Moscow during talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in China.

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

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

“Both domestically and internationally, Xi has cycled this grim narrative since taking power,” Johnson said in an interview. “It allows him to justify his accumulation of power and the changes he has made by creating this sense of struggle and danger.”

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

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

The documentary attributes the decline of the Soviet Union to political liberalization, specifically what Beijing calls “historical nihilism,” or a focus on the mistakes and wrongdoings of the Communist Party. He accuses critical historians of the Soviet revolution of fabricating estimates of millions of deaths for Stalin’s purges.

Stalin, he argues, was a modernizing leader whose purges went too far, but initially “was something of a necessity” given the threats to the Soviet regime. This suggests that rock music and modern fashion were symptoms of the moral rot that set in later.

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

The documentary credits Mr. Putin with restoring the spirit of Russia.

It shows Mr Putin marching in a parade marking Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, and young Russians kissing a banner with his portrait. Moscow’s former rulers – especially Mr. Gorbachev and Nikita S. Khrushchev – are portrayed as dupes, bewitched by the siren song of liberal reform and Western superiority.

The documentary, “Historical Nihilism and Soviet Collapse,” was the centerpiece of a month-long campaign targeting party officials that has continued since Russia launched its all-out assault on Ukraine on 24 February, according to information posted on local government websites. Officials overseeing the screenings are often described in official notices as calling on executives to maintain firm loyalty to Mr. Xi.

“Loving a party and its leader is not a personality cult,” said Zheng Keyang, former deputy director of the party’s Central Policy Research Bureau and a consultant on the documentary, when discussing the documentary. published by a pro-party website. this month.

Chinese leaders debate why the Soviet Union has crumbled since its dissolution in 1991. More than his predecessors, Xi has blamed the breakup of the Soviet Union on lack of ideological backbone and subversion western politics.

“If you have the worldview you see in this documentary, you could tell yourself the story that the Russians are facing a real threat from the West,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University. from Washington who studies elite politics in China and Russia, said in an interview.

The study drive aims to retain executives ahead of a Chinese Communist Party congress later this year where Mr Xi appears poised to seek a third term.

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

Many critical essays have been deleted and the party has pushed harder to defend its position in recent weeks. Editorials in Communist Party newspapers have amplified the Chinese leadership’s argument that the real culprits in Ukraine are the United States and NATO, for undermining Russian security.

“It was the United States who personally lit the fuse for the current conflagration between Russia and Ukraine,” said one of the editorials in the Liberation Army Daily, the main military newspaper.

Universities and colleges have held indoctrination conferences for students, suggesting officials fear educated young Chinese may be receptive to criticism that Beijing has been too soft on Mr Putin.

Liu Zuokui, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told an audience of students in eastern China that the war was born out of “NATO’s eastward expansion which reduced the ‘Russian survival space’, according to an online summary of the conference.

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

Party compliance demands in the face of the crisis will make it harder to coalesce any dissent into a pushback against Mr. Xi.

“There’s an ‘either we hang on or we hang on separately’ attitude that comes into play,” Mr. Johnson, the former CIA analyst, said of China’s leaders. “If it’s a strong nationalist approach, then who in the party doesn’t want to be a good nationalist?”

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