On the face of it, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have a lot in common. Both are ageing all-powerful national leaders, both are survivors of the 20th century’s communist-led revolutions, and both are looking to create legacy projects worthy of their grand ambitions. 

That means righting wrongs imposed by the past victories of Western intruders and restoring what was lost to the mistakes and misfortunes of predecessors. Both men are now determined to make right what they see as the wrongs of history and restore the influence that their predecessors lacked the will to preserve.

Smoke billows after a Russian attack on the Retroville shopping mall abd residential district of Kyiv on March 21, 2022. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP.

Analysts have been quick to see the parallels between Putin’s war to “de-militarise” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine and Xi’s determination to tidy up the last remnant of China’s civil war that brought his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to power in 1949. Instead of surrendering, its adversary retreated to the island province of Taiwan where the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party and its army, then led by Chiang Kai-shek, have remained ever since.

The initial plan was to regroup and rebuild his defeated forces and recapture the mainland. It never happened. Instead, they brought with them the bad habits that underlay their defeat on the mainland, and it was not uncommon to hear Taiwanese with memories of those days recall that even the World War II Japanese occupiers were better rulers than their KMT successors. 

A new Taiwan independence movement was born and gave rise in turn to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT eventually managed to re-create itself in a more modern guise, and the result today is the self-ruled island of Taiwan. Its two main political parties compete via democratic elections for the right to form Taiwan’s government. The KMT lost the 2016 presidential race and the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen was elected to a second term in 2020. But within this success story lies the source of Xi’s fears.  

Parallels: The larger view

XI and others among the CCP leadership may never have fought a democratic election in their lives, but they are fully aware of what such an act signifies. It means that ultimately, ordinary voters have the right to determine who governs them. As far as the CCP is concerned such a right is anathema because it is tantamount to independence. In any event, it means independence from the certainty of perpetual CCP rule, which would herald its downfall.

CCP 100 years July 1, 2021Beijing Xi Jinping
Chinese leader Xi Jinping gives a speech on July 1, 2021 as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

With a wholly elected Taiwan government and one of its two dominant political parties rooted in Taiwan’s independence movement — and with the old United States-KMT World War II alliance continuing in updated form — Xi sees nothing but trouble ahead for his dream of one nation rejuvenated and reunited under his party’s rule. 

Chinese officials are forever exhorting Washington to understand China’s core concerns. What these exhortations mean is that the US commitment to bolster Taiwan’s defence capabilities in anticipation of a possible mainland attack stands as the ultimate barrier to Beijing’s quest for national reunification.

To show their determination in pursuit of this quest, Beijing leaders have long threatened to regain sovereignty over Taiwan by force of arms, if it persists in its stubborn refusal to reunite by other means. This threat has never been retracted and military posturing around Taiwan, both at sea and in the air, has been on the increase in recent years. 

Meanwhile, Xi has taken to softening the message and talking about peaceful reunification, without mentioning the follow-up threat of reunification by other means if all else fails. But the threat of force remains national policy.  

Liberty Square Taipei Taiwan
Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

“As it has already passed the Anti-Secession Law — in 2005 — Beijing will use force and take whatever other measures necessary to reunite the country,” noted a recent China Daily report. “Sooner rather than later …  the mainland is determined and has the capability to achieve national reunification, peacefully or otherwise.”

The parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine are easy to see — and so are the differences.  Unlike the CCP, Putin’s Communist Party is now history and so is the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). Putin himself, as a surviving remnant of that era, is now trying to recreate something of its past power and influence. 

The irredentist aim, for both Xi and Putin, looks forward as well as back.  They invoke the memory of times past when the Chinese and Russian empires were at the height of their influence —  and point the way forward towards what they can become again.  

In his February 24 televised address to the people of Russia, Putin reiterated his grievances and set the stage for what was to come. His battle plans follow from this lament. The aim is to force Ukraine —  one of the 15 republics that made up the USSR — to return whence it came. This he is attempting to accomplish by force of arms since other means have failed. 

His war is against Ukraine’s post-Soviet aspirations to look West, which in this case means not just looking to the West but actually joining it, as a full-fledged member of the Western European family of nations. How many Ukrainians share these aspirations is unclear. But they entail membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).  

European Union Commission Flag Headquarters Brussels
European Union Flags in Brussels. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski, via Flickr.

Putin aims to force Ukrainians back into what he seems to consider their rightful place, by reason of their culture and history, within Russia’s orbit and its sphere of greatest influence. He seems not to regard them as citizens of a separate country but instead as part of the history they all share.

A partnership renewed

Strategic alignments call for strategic partnerships.  This one may not be as effusively proclaimed as the old Sino-Soviet friendship alliance of Cold War Days. But Xi and Putin are aligning their larger aims by presenting themselves as mutual admirers and best friends on the world stage and a new force capable of balancing the current Western-dominated world order. Their interests are similar, their ambitions do not seriously conflict, and together they stand in defiance of the West, of Western alliances, and of Western ways of political life.

Mutual interests were most clearly stated in the joint statement issued on February 4, after Putin became the most important world leader to attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing early this year. Others honoured the diplomatic boycott by the US and its allies, to protest at Beijing’s treatment of the Moslem minority Uighur population in China’s western Xinjiang region, and the crackdown against political dissent in Hong Kong.

The invasion began on February 24, not long after Putin’s return to Moscow. Reports followed, all denied, that Putin had given Xi advance warning and Xi had asked him to delay the invasion until after the Olympic games ended.      

Beijing 2022
File Photo: IOC.

Their 5,000-word joint statement targeted mutual antagonists and concerns: some nations that insisted on promoting their own way in international relations and on interfering in the internal affairs of others. Their statement mentioned the new Australian, British, and American security alliance (AUKUS), and vowed to “remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region.”

The two leaders also addressed each other’s concerns about NATO and Taiwan. They agreed on their opposition to expansion of the former and the independence of the latter, affirming that Taiwan is an integral part of China. 

The statement reaffirmed that the new relationship between Russia and China is “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”  

Xi even won a statement from Putin on China’s latest favourite theme: all-inclusive whole-process democracy as opposed to the adversarial Western variety. “There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy,” and the agreement opposed the attempt by some states to foist their own standards of democracy on others.  

putin xi
China’s leader Xi Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2018. Photo: Wikicommons.

The two sides stood united in their mutual support for their core interests, state sovereignty, and territorial integrity.  They also stood together against the interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign states and they especially oppose “colour revolutions.” This is the term coined after the break-up of the Soviet Union when its satellites changed their colours from Communist Party red to something else and went their separate ways.

These are terms about democracy and colour revolutions that have been used repeatedly by Beijing with reference to Hong Kong’s 2019 protests and the subsequent clampdown on dissent. The protests were blamed on foreign force interventionists, the supposed aim being to achieve a colour revolution in Hong Kong and separate it from its Chinese Motherland. The electoral system was redesigned from one that allowed adversarial party politics to one that is now restricted to a uniform standard allowing participation by pro-Beijing patriots only.

“Unprecedented China-Russian ties to start a new era of international relations not defined by US,” proclaimed a headline in China’s Global Times.

In return, Xi followed up as any partner would. After the conflict began, the United Nations tabled a resolution condemning Putin’s war in Ukraine. China abstained and has since refused to label it an act of aggression. The UN General Assembly vote was 141 in favour and five opposed, with 35 abstentions. 

United Nations
Photo: United Nations.

In light of all that has occurred since Putin’s assault on Ukraine began, the February 4 agreement between Xi and Putin contained one especially curious additional point. In order to prevent the recurrence of the world war tragedy, Russia and China “will strongly condemn activities aimed at denying the responsibility for atrocities of Nazi aggressors, militarist invaders, and their accomplices… “

Strategic Ambiguity: The western defenders play it safe

Further in parallel are the red lines and limitations built into the Western alliances that are ranged against both Putin and Xi, in Ukraine and Taiwan.  And both leaders are playing the same game of brinkmanship, along the lines designed to restrain their ambitions.

President Joe Biden did what other US presidents have done before him in similar situations, by promising he would not send American troops to fight against Russia on Ukraine’s behalf. NATO is similarly inclined.  Article Five of its charter holds that an attack against one is an attack against all.  But Ukraine is not a member of NATO.  Arms and ammunition, yes, boots on the ground, no — especially not when direct participation would further provoke Putin and could easily escalate into World War III.  

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: NATO via Flickr.

For Taiwan, the principle of “strategic ambiguity” settled over the relationship long ago. That means refusing to declare one way or the other how the US would respond if Beijing actually carried out its threat to try and subdue the island by force. Washington is legally bound to help the island defend itself. That aside, scepticism has long prevailed over whether the US would actually go to war with China on Taiwan’s behalf.

But what is Taiwan if not Ukraine?

Beijing has sent out the word via every available media platform:  Ukraine is an independent sovereign state. Taiwan is not. “The most fundamental difference is that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the Taiwan question is completely China’s internal affair, one which brooks no external interference.”

China’s speechwriters and news editors have had to tie themselves in knots over this one, and there is no clear path to lead away from their predicament. The standard response about Taiwan not being an independent country raises other questions and considerations that Beijing officials do not acknowledge, much less answer.  

Is the official response meant to Imply that Putin is justified in his war because Ukraine is a sovereign independent state?  Surely not.  That would openly contradict China’s long-held principles of peaceful coexistence and the territorial integrity of sovereign states. 

Nor are Beijing officials inclined to explore the ambiguities inherent in Putin’s views on Ukraine. Actually, it seems to occupy an uncertain status not unlike that of Taiwan. Putin is reputed to regard Ukraine more like a cultural extension of Mother Russia than an independent country.  

vladmir putin
Vladmir Putin. Photo: Wikicommons.

Since they have now violated his code of cultural honour and historic loyalty by trying to join Western Europe, he assumes the right to impose collective punishment on the Ukrainian people as a whole. If he regarded it as a sovereign country, he would presumably have focused more on strategic targets and spared the civilians.

But the greatest lapse in Beijing’s story line has been there all along, long before the war in Ukraine and before Taiwan “secessionists” entered the picture to put ideas in the heads of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists. The lapse was addressed by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in her response to an overture made by Xi in 2019, and was reinforced by events during the two years that followed.  

Xi’s overture was made in a major speech on January 2, 2019. The commemorative event was held to mark the first major outreach to Taiwan dating from the reform era that followed the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

On January 1, 1979, Beijing had issued a message to Taiwan compatriots calling for an end to the military confrontation between them that had existed since 1949.  The US and China also established formal diplomatic relations on the same day, January 1, 1979, transferring formal recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Beijing had suggested the possibility of reunification  at that time, and even presented a plan designed to make it possible. This was called “one country, two systems,” but Taiwan was not interested. The idea was then adapted for use in Hong Kong and became the basis for its governing formula after the 1997 transfer from British to Chinese rule. 

handover 1997
The 1997 Handover ceremony. File Photo: GovHK.

In Xi’s 2019 speech, he reiterated the same proposal on the basis of the same one country, two systems formula. He also said the aim was to achieve reunification by peaceful means.  But he did not rule out the use of force if foreign interventionists and separatist dissenters got in the way.

The Taiwan problem may be for Beijing alone to resolve, but Xi’s 2019 speech seems to be the extent of Beijing’s thinking on the matter. If so, nothing has changed since 1979. President Tsai followed up immediately with her response. She said the Hong Kong-style one country, two systems model for reunification was out of the question. Taiwan would never accept it. 

She had warned earlier about Beijing’s “vague” political promises.  In practice, she had said, the one country, two systems formula mentioned by Xi actually meant one country as defined by Beijing with the two systems under its control.  She called on Beijing to focus first on its own system and introduce major democratic reforms if it wanted to win Taiwan’s trust.

This public exchange of views on the Taiwan question took place in early 2019. Hong Kong’s one country, two systems model has since undergone a major upheaval, making it even less acceptable in Taiwan eyes. 

Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law protests began a few months after Xi’s speech. Violence became a routine feature of the protests. But the majority voting public, far from rejecting the upheaval as expected, turned out in greater numbers than ever before, at the height of the disruption, to endorse candidates who were themselves united in support of the protests. The occasion was Hong Kong’s November election to fill seats on the 18 neighbourhood-level District Councils.

district council election november 11 (16)
The district council election in November 2019. File Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

Yet Hong Kong’s popular grievances and public preferences counted for nothing. Decisions had been made at a major Communist Party meeting in October. The result was a National Security Law promulgated on June 30, 2020, followed in early 2021 by the complete overhaul of Hong Kong’s election system.

The legalistic blitzkrieg that followed the new security law has silenced Hong Kong’s entire democracy movement. Its strongest and most popular pro-democracy candidates are now in jail, denied bail, and awaiting trial on the most serious of national security charges that could keep them behind bars for years to come. The new electoral system has made it impossible for such candidates to contest elections, since these have been redesigned for pro-Beijing “patriots only.”

Yet the official designation remains unchanged. The same one country, two systems formula that Xi offered Taiwan in January 2019, plus the goal of eventual universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and the entire Legislative Council, also remain unchanged. It’s just that a totally new cast of Beijing-designated characters are playing the key roles mainland-style: universal suffrage elections with officially approved candidates only. Voters have the right to cast their ballots or not as they like, but their choices will have been made for them.  

Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Simon Liu/Taiwan Presidential Office, via Flickr.

Tsai’s response to Xi in early 2019 can now be reinforced many times over by reason of Hong Kong’s post-2019 experience. As she said, if  he is really so intent on reunification, the place to begin is with the reform of China’s own political system.  So, the way lies open before him, if only Xi can bring himself to take it.

As for the threat of reunification by force if necessary, it’s just possible that Xi — having witnessed the global outrage provoked by his friend’s Ukrainian adventure — might devise some more enlightened means of achieving his rendezvous with China’s destiny. 

A Hong Kong footnote

But no matter how many contradictions Beijing officials create for themselves, the party’s propaganda department is in charge of publications, so the public information people are always there to try and help out. Still, if Taiwan and Ukraine are completely different, how much more so are Ukrainians and Hongkongers? 

Nevertheless, on March 4, Hong Kong’s Beijing-sponsored Ta Kung Pao daily ran a full-page special on the local arrival of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, in town to support Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protesters.  

The photographs were over two years old, featuring four skinhead tattooed types who came to town in 2019 to demonstrate solidarity with Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. Proof positive that they were actually fascists in disguise, despite all the talk of rights and freedoms and universal suffrage elections. At the time, local news reports referred to them as “protest tourists” and there was concern they would give the local democracy movement a bad name.

728 Hong Kong island protest
Protesters march through Central. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

There have been such elements in Ukraine’s past.  The neo-Nazi Azov Battalion was a volunteer militia formed to fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The unit has since joined Ukraine’s regular armed forces, but in what guise is not known.  

Its name derives from the Sea of Azov, an extension of the Black Sea, which leads in turn to the Aegean and then to the Mediterranean beyond. It’s where Russians go to catch a bit of sunlight and dream of holiday destinations further south.  Perhaps that’s why Putin is so keen to take back the lost territory!  But the name Azov has provided a different and much darker kind of symbol, the letter Z, that the invading Russian forces have adopted to proclaim the anti-fascist purpose of their mission. 

 The Xi-Putin alliance may concern matters far removed from Hong Kong and its street corner newsstands.  But Beijing’s effort to create favourable public opinion for its causes —  like the friendship between Xi and Putin — knows no bounds.

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Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.