On the opening day of February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, China and Russia exuberantly affirmed their “no limits” friendship. In retrospect, it seems that limits emerged less than three weeks later when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a blitzkrieg against Ukraine.

The erosion of the avowed friendship was evident in two recent events: first, the routing of Russian troops occupying much of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, and second, statements by Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

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

The Ukrainian army’s expulsion of Russian forces from Kharkiv was rapid and dramatic. The Ukrainians’ determination and resolve were central to their victory, but they would admit that they could not have done it without extensive supplies of materiel from Western countries. Indeed, they might also admit the importance of shared intelligence from some of those countries.

The rout of Russian forces put a dent in the lingering assumption that Putin’s supposedly super-powerful army guarantees him victory.

China has provided much rhetorical support for Russia’s war of aggression. It has parroted Russia’s justifications for the war, naturally directing much of the blame toward the United States. But talk is cheap. So far, it appears that China has not directly aided Putin’s war effort. It is buying more Russian oil, but only because it comes at bargain-basement prices.

Now that Russia is clearly suffering major military setbacks, Xi seems to be having – at least according to Putin’s remarks in Samarkand – “questions and concerns” about Moscow’s warmaking.

Putin thanked Xi for China’s “balanced” stance on the Ukraine War. “Balanced” is obviously some way short of the unlimited stance Putin surely expected in the heady days between his bear hugs with Xi at the Olympics in early February and his invasion late that month.

Members of the Ukrainian National Guard. Photo: Wikicommons.

As in other liberated parts of Ukraine, Russian forces have left behind a trail of barbarity in the Kharkiv region: torture, rape, disappearances, mass graves and the destruction of civilian homes and infrastructure. China’s friendship with Russia still means there is no degree of wicked viciousness by Putin’s military that will provoke a clear public rebuke from Beijing.

In a reciprocal silence of the depraved, autocratic regimes tend not criticise their brethren’s atrocities. Thus, Russia has not joined other governments in condemning United Nations-identified “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang.

China’s no-limits Russia strategy seems to be faltering. After all, Russia is by far China’s most powerful ally, and putatively its closest. It is supposed to be the strongest element, after China itself, in Beijing’s effort to undermine, and ultimately replace, the American-led, rules-based international order. Yet over the last six months Russia has suffered tens of thousands of casualties in Ukraine, and its military has demonstrated astonishing weaknesses.

Even if Putin acts on his threats to use nuclear weapons, which would be a sign of absolute desperation, the outlook for him in Ukraine may be bleak. The war may evolve into years of stalemate or, seemingly more likely as of this week, some form of defeat for Russia that could conceivably see Putin removed from office – he might conveniently choose not to run for re-election in 2024 – possibly to be replaced by another rabid warmonger who would be an equally problematic best friend of China.

One assumes that President Xi has not contemplated similar potential pitfalls should he order an invasion of Taiwan.

Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September 2022. Photo: Wikicommons.

China’s current friendship with Russia is contributing to a trend: officials and business leaders around the world are increasingly questioning the judgment and effectiveness of China’s ruling elite. From Ukraine to Taiwan to Covid-19, it seems to be out of step with global opinion, and indeed out of step with reality.

Examples can be found in statements made at the SCO meeting, where Xi declared that China would work with Russia to “inject stability into a turbulent world” – or “instil stability and positive energy in a world of chaos” or “play a guiding role to inject stability and positive energy into a world rocked by social turmoil,”  depending on your preferred translation. 

Such statements signify a wilful disregard for reality. That the world is experiencing turbulence, chaos and turmoil is beyond doubt, but to suggest that China and Russia, even working together, can be trusted to stabilise it is counter-intuitive.

Xi failed to acknowledge that the world’s ongoing turbulence, chaos and turmoil were predominantly set in motion by China and Russia. Covid-19 spread around the world thanks to policy failures inherent to China’s authoritarian style of governance, resulting in the deaths of millions of people and devastation to the global economy. Russia launched an aggressive war on Ukraine, creating a worsening energy crisis, exacerbating food insecurity and fuelling global inflation.

Both China and Russia have contributed enormously to the flames of climate change being felt across the globe through their policy-driven addictions to dirty fossil fuels.

A factory in China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Extending the hypocrisy, Xi called on SCO leaders to “work together to promote the development of the international order in a more just and rational direction” – this from a leader who has aligned his country with the world’s worst autocrats and continues to justify one of those leader’s – Putin’s – repeated war crimes in Ukraine.

As French President Emmanuel Macron observed in a speech this week to the United Nations General Assembly: “Those who are silent today are serving – whether against their will or secretly with a certain complicity – the cause of a new imperialism.” The rolling massacres of civilians in Ukraine are characteristic of the violent world that China has wrought by befriending fellow autocratic regimes around the world.

To be sure, there are captive audiences around the world – citizens of countries where the media is controlled by the state or people who are captivated by omnipresent social media madness – that are receptive to Xi’s emollient declarations. But in most of the democratic world, and certainly in most developed countries’ capitals, his words look divorced from reality, or at least highly cynical in their disregard for it. 

The potential for problematic decision-making may be growing in Beijing. As suppression of alternative views in China reaches an all-time high, the ability and willingness of ruling elites to reflect on their motives and policies reaches an all-time low.

Indeed, one of the faults of autocratic regimes is that, by definition, they silence those who have insights into alternative domestic and foreign policies that might make the country more secure and prosperous, instead propping up sycophants who advocate policies that do just the opposite. For examples, look at Hong Kong.

Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

Wayward or downright counterproductive policies have few correctives in a top-down, authoritarian regime that has eliminated, jailed or silenced its critics. By some accounts, Putin’s minions are afraid to tell him how badly things are going for Russia in Ukraine. Perhaps the same is true for the advice regarding Covid-19 and other issues that Xi receives from his own officials.

As the ongoing zero-Covid policy demonstrates, in China the response to dubious policies tends to be to double down on them.

That said, while China’s leadership has shown every sign of not caring what the free world thinks, it is far from ignorant. It has ample capacity for effective policymaking. There are some tentative signs, including Putin’s perception of a “balanced” Chinese approach to the Ukraine War, that Beijing may be rethinking some counterproductive policies. Xi’s failure to embrace Putin more robustly in Samarkand suggests that China’s leadership intends to place more limits on its unlimited friendship with Russia.

After Xi is reinaugurated as supreme leader at next month’s 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, we may even see substantial changes to the recurring zero-Covid lockdowns that have rolled across China for several years, and perhaps even a reconsideration of the policy to deny life-saving Western vaccines to China’s population.

A Covid-19 vaccination centre in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

There may be a lesson here for officials in Hong Kong. In the current political environment, whereby absolutely everything is perceived as a potential threat to so-called national security, there is relatively little latitude to set policy.

But local officials ought not assume that the paths they are required to tread are the best ones. Even when they have no choice but to toe the line, perhaps a little less cheerleading for that line on certain issues, whether Covid-19, supposed national security, Taiwan or any other policy of China that much of the world perceives to be misguided, would bring Hong Kong into less disrepute.

When officials are seen to be out of touch with reality on some topics, it’s reasonable to assume that they may be out of touch with it on others. That assumption exacerbates Hong Kong’s uphill struggle to regain its former credibility and attractiveness in the eyes of global business.

In other words, Hong Kong officials might do better if they avoid doing what officials in Beijing and Moscow have been doing lately: digging holes and trying to escape them by digging deeper. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to put down your shovel and stop digging.


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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.