Bing Dwen Dwen, the cuddly cartoon panda encased in ice that is the official mascot of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, has done little to distract from China’s warm embrace of a much less huggable ursine beast: the Russian Bear. 

As athletes from around the world were donning their skis and skates, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin stole the limelight with a joint summit that pronounced their “no limits” partnership and stiffened their nascent alliance against the West, in the process affirming their mutual devotion to authoritarian rule.

At the same time, Western leaders and diplomats – many of whom were boycotting Olympic ceremonies to protest China’s human rights record – were furiously trying to avert an invasion by Russian forces massed along the borders of Ukraine. Instead of using its clout with Russia to relax tensions, Beijing adopted Russian propaganda as its foreign policy, blaming the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, for instigating the crisis. 

Despite years of cordial relations with Ukraine, which has happily equipped the People’s Liberation Army with weapons of various sorts, Xi seems to agree with Putin that a democratic Ukraine poses a real threat to authoritarian rule in Russia. In the Chinese and Russian worldviews, fear of Ukrainian democracy makes perfect sense. 

From Putin’s perspective, if Ukraine’s democracy is successful, it would prove to Russians that there is an alternative to his authoritarian style of governance. This message takes on greater credibility because Putin has said that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people … one nation, in fact.”

This sort of logic was used to justify Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. It follows that if democracy can work in an ethnically Russian Ukraine, it can work in Russia. That’s not a lesson that Putin wants Russians to learn.

Crimean and Russian flags flying over the Supreme Council building in Simferopol, Crimea, in March 2014. Photo: Wikicommons

Xi may have bought into this perspective because he sees an identical threat on his own doorstep: democracy in Taiwan, a territory that he has vociferously insisted is a breakaway province populated by Chinese people (despite only 4 per cent of Taiwan’s citizens saying in a 2020 Pew Research Center survey that they are only Chinese, and two-thirds having no feeling of Chinese identity whatsoever.)

To emphasise that people in Taiwan are Chinese is to give support to those who argue that Taiwan provides concrete proof of an economically robust democratic alternative for Chinese people who dislike Beijing’s authoritarian style of governance.

(Absurdly, the governments of China and Russia claim that they are democratic, despite devoting their energies to snuffing out any vestiges of democracy. For example, in both countries, independent media are dead or dying and all prominent political opponents have been arrested, exiled or forced into submission.)

China’s support for Russia in the current crisis is especially revealing because Putin’s build-up of forces effectively threatens invasion of a sovereign member of the United Nations, something that Beijing has stridently opposed for decades (especially when it’s done by the United States).

China’s willingness to not only look aside as Russia threatens Ukraine, but also to declare support for Russia’s justifications for doing so, suggests the extent to which the Chinese leadership is willing to set aside longstanding convictions to embrace the world’s second most powerful authoritarian regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP

In many respects, China and Russia are not natural allies; their mutual history is replete with political and sometimes military conflict. But under 21st-century autocratic rule, it is now their natural inclination to join hands. What is more, since annexing Crimea, Russia has been pushed closer to China.

Western economic sanctions that were intended to punish Russia for occupying Ukrainian territory (something that Beijing has not officially recognised) have increased its need for Chinese finance and access to the Chinese market for its export of gas, oil, military hardware and timber.

Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, argues that China and Russia “aim for a world order more supportive of authoritarian regimes.” Putin and Xi have a “mutual interest in challenging the current world order and in maintaining domestic stability and preventing ‘colour’ revolutions at home.”

According to Luke Patey, a scholar at Oxford University, “A world where authoritarian regimes are seen as a legitimate alternative to democracy is one where Beijing sees the best opportunity to advance its national interests and value positions. China has a strategic partner in Russia to build an authoritarian internationale.”

China’s support for authoritarian rule is not restricted to Putin. According to some experts, Beijing is in the business of exporting authoritarianism. It has propped up many established and budding autocrats, such as Hun Sen in Cambodia, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Kazakhstan, Ali Khamenei in Iran, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and Emerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Photo: Kremlin.

In countries with weak democratic institutions, such as Uganda and Zambia, China has empowered officials with surveillance technologies, enabling them to control the media, suppress dissent and retain power. When authoritarian regimes face trade restrictions or outright sanctions imposed by Western countries, they do what Russia has done: turn to China for support.

Last July, Xi told senior Chinese Communist Party officials that they should “extol the virtues of China’s model of authoritarian governance” around the world to increase the country’s and the party’s influence internationally.

In Patey’s view, one of China’s overriding global ambitions is to legitimise its “developmental model of political authoritarianism” and to “challenge the core values of the world’s liberal democracies: individual liberty, freedom of speech, and the rule of law.” 

China’s objective is not necessarily to undermine all democratic countries, least of all weak ones. It is happy to accommodate them when they implement China-friendly policies (and to punish them harshly when they change their minds about doing so, as Australia has discovered).

The objective is instead to establish economic and political dominance so as to promote China’s national interests as defined by the party-state leadership.

Vladmir Putin. Photo: Wikicommons.

China’s embrace of Putin and other autocrats serves multiple purposes. It opens doors to Chinese exports and the exploitation of natural resources vital to China’s economy, in the process enhancing influence over other countries’ foreign policies (such as pushing them to cut ties with Taiwan), as well as smoothing access for China’s military and the construction of associated infrastructure (such as port facilities) as it slowly builds up a global security footprint. 

Support for authoritarian regimes also helps to pull them away from the Western orbit and to make trouble for the West in the zero-sum game for influence in what may already be a new cold war between a China-oriented authoritarian world and a Western-oriented free world. China’s support for authoritarians also aims to quicken the decline of American global influence. 

Some flaws in China’s strategy are evident. One of them is akin to the so-called “security dilemma,” the notion that if a country expands its military to provide security against other countries, it creates a perceived threat that pushes them to in turn expand their own militaries, fostering an arms race that leads to mutual insecurity all around.

The more visibly and concretely China joins hands with authoritarian regimes, especially those that are perceived to threaten Western interests, the more Western countries will feel threatened and look to the United States for protection. 

A paradox for China is that the harder it tries to construct an authoritarian bloc of countries to counter the waning American-led world order, the more it may stoke opposition to what is perceived to be Chinese hegemony and create support for concerted effort by democratic countries to defend existing global institutions and push back against China’s rise.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Photo: Pool screenshot.

For several decades the democratic world has tolerated that rise in the hope that trade and interaction with the West would temper Chinese authoritarianism. That tolerance has dissipated as China under Xi has doubled down on authoritarian governance at home and started to spread it globally. The Olympic bear hug in Beijing only reinforces growing Western fears of an accelerating spread of authoritarianism. Actions beget reactions.

Another flaw in China’s strategy is that it relies on unreliable partners. Some of the world’s most dastardly regimes and autocrats, many of them with precarious holds on power and precious little public support, form the edifice of China’s alternative, authoritarian world order. As the United States learned many times during the Cold War, supporting autocratic and unpopular regimes can create more problems than it solves.

A related drawback for China is that the autocrats it is embracing have their own interests and priorities. They accept China’s embrace for self-interested reasons. When conditions change, they or their successors may happily let go of China and embrace another power. 

Indeed, the most recent bear hug between Putin and Xi is not the first time Russia and China have embraced. In the past, their vital interests and national priorities quickly undermined trust, a circumstance that the United States was able to exploit.

The same may happen again, and it may even be inevitable, not just with Putin’s Russia but also with other authoritarian regimes currently experiencing Beijing’s warm embrace.

It might even be worse than that for China; unanticipated and painful blowback may result from China’s embrace of autocrats. Putin’s current designs on Ukraine can be likened to the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.

The Olympic agreement between Putin and Xi seems to give a green light to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. If Putin does order a strike and China fails to condemn his actions – and especially if it continues to support his regime – it will be declaring that is acceptable in today’s world to use kinship and imagined threats as justifications for the use of military force against neighbouring countries. 

Such a declaration would provide succour to regimes and groups that may lay claim to territory currently controlled by China. The list of such claims is rather long, coming from countries along much of China’s borders, including even Russia. To be sure, territorial disputes between China and Russia are currently dormant, but the same could have been said of Russia’s disputes with Ukraine until relatively recently.

Democracy around the world is in decline, challenged domestically like never before by the impacts and vagaries of the Covid-19 pandemic and internationally by China’s growing economic, technological and political influence. By inadvertently unleashing a coronavirus on the world and using its totalitarian power to subdue the virus – at least so far – at home, China has created a hospitable environment and apparent model for authoritarianism globally. 

China is not alone in supporting autocrats. However, while other world powers are moving away from the practice, China is actively adopting it. Short of determined action by democratic countries, the future of global authoritarianism, and by implication the future of global democracy, will to a great extent be determined by Beijing.

A question is how far China will take its apparent export of authoritarianism. Authoritarian rule is not universally accepted even within Greater China, as evidenced until very recently by full-throated opposition in Hong Kong.

Rejection of authoritarian rule by Hongkongers was easy enough for Beijing to quash. It may be more difficult for less powerful authoritarian regimes in other countries where people believe that they, rather than their rulers, are the true sovereigns.

Bing Dwen Dwen, the panda mascot of the winter Olympics, may be a metaphor for China’s preferred model of governance around the world. According to the organiser of the Olympic Games, Bing Dwen Dwen is wearing “a full-body ‘shell’ made out of ice,” apparently meant to symbolise the panda’s strength. But anyone wearing a shell of ice would be unable to move and unable to speak out. Authoritarian rulers wouldn’t want it any other way.


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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.