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China In Eurasia

Wednesday 4 May 2022

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Chinese riot police patrol a street in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Province. A new study finds that China is hunting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities through a global dragnet that is increasingly relying on cooperation with governments in the Middle East and South and Central Asia. (file photo)

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping had plenty on his plate: maintaining ambitious growth targets, a deepening rivalry with Washington, climate change, demographic pressure, blowback from a tough COVID-zero strategy, and paving the way for a precedent-defying third term as leader.

But the Ukraine war has compounded those problems and set off a cascade of knock-on effects that are shifting Chinese policy at home and abroad.

Finding Perspective: In foreign policy, Beijing has clearly wedded itself to Russia throughout its war and betrayed long-held principles about the inviolability of sovereignty and nonbelligerence toward other nations by refusing to call Moscow’s unilateral actions an “invasion.”

Across Eurasia, this is playing out in unexpected ways, as I explored here in a recent article.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- a regional bloc of China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- is Beijing’s umbrella organization for this part of the world and represents a balance of power between Beijing and Moscow, the region’s two hegemons.

The SCO has struggled at times with finding an overriding mission, and fallout from the war risks derailing that further, especially as Beijing must now navigate between backing Russia and embracing many SCO members’ desire for more distance from Moscow.

“Due to its size and geography, China’s role [in Central Asia] will grow [following the war], but the SCO won’t have many success stories to point to,” Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. “Beijing is also now seen as a supporter of Russia and as a country that isn't doing much to restrain Moscow when many [SCO members] are seeing it as a potential threat.”

Why It Matters: China’s footprint in Eurasia and the future of the SCO are just one example of repercussions from the war that could hinder wider Chinese goals.

While China grapples with a sustained economic slowdown due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the war has pushed up costs for Chinese businesses and contributed to fading overseas demand for their exports.

This not only raises the possibility of recession inside China but also globally, as the world economy risks becoming deprived of one of its main engines at a time when inflation and war fallout are also set to hit Europe and the United States later this year.

Read More

  • A top Chinese investor, whose fund manages more than $50 billion, made headlines when he warned that the Chinese economy was in “the worst shape in the past 30 years” during a leaked video and that government policies of late could trigger a “deep economic crisis” comparable to the 2008 global financial crash.
  • On the flip side, Ray Dalio, who manages the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater, recently spoke with The New York Times’ Kara Swisher on her Sway podcast about how China’s rise could still displace the United States as the world’s top economy.

Expert Corner: The Czech Republic Takes Aim At China

Readers asked: “The new Czech government is speaking out strongly against China over its support for Russia in the war. What’s behind this outspoken move and what can it actually accomplish?”

To find out more, I asked Martin Hala, an expert at Charles University in Prague and the director of Sinopsis, a project that tracks China in Europe:

“In the last decade, the Czech Republic has experienced close and instructive encounters with China’s external influence machinery and an understanding has emerged that Chinese and Russian interests in the country -- and in Central and Eastern Europe -- are closely intertwined and are often advanced by the very same co-opted domestic actors. There is a growing awareness that the two powers are striving to set up an alternative 'Eurasian' political bloc and challenge the existing international order and liberal democratic values that Prague and its neighbors opted for in 1989.

“Central and Eastern Europe finds itself uncomfortably close to the divide between the Euro-Atlantic and 'Eurasian' blocs, with Ukraine’s choice to be part of the former leading to aggression by the latter -- in the form of Russia’s invasion and China’s tacit support. That has alarmed many in the region, including the Czech Republic, who now seek additional political and security arrangements not only in the Euro-Atlantic, but also in the Indo-Pacific.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Pakistan Bombing Raises Chinese Security Fears

Three Chinese citizens and their Pakistani driver were killed on April 26 in a blast carried out by a suicide bomber in the city of Karachi, Radio Mashaal, RFE/RL’s Pakistani service, reported.

What You Need To Know: The bombing was claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group that has targeted Chinese nationals in the past and the attack will once again test Beijing's patience with repeated attacks against its citizens in the country.

The Chinese nationals were teachers at a Confucius Institute tied to the University of Karachi, and the BLA said the attack was carried out by a 30-year-old mother of two, which, as my colleague Abubakar Siddique notes, marks a new form of tactics for the group.

The BLA, a separatist group, says it is fighting for a bigger share of Balochistan's abundant natural resources and mines and has attacked infrastructure projects and engaged in battles with Pakistani security forces over the years.

In a statement after the blast, the militant group said it had deliberately targeted Chinese citizens and warned of more attacks unless China halted projects in Balochistan Province, many of which are linked to Beijing’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

2. The New Great Wall Of Steel

China is hunting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities through an expanding global dragnet that is increasingly relying on cooperation with governments in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, according to a new study from the Wilson Center.

What It Means: I interviewed Bradley Jardine, the author of the report, who explained how China’s rise granted Beijing newfound leverage over governments and allowed it to co-opt them as partners in a spreading repression campaign.

The study's dataset documented 5,532 cases of Uyghurs facing intimidation, 1,150 cases of Uyghurs detained in a host country, and 424 cases of Uyghurs deported or extradited to China, from 1997 to January 2022.

And of the 10 countries where Uyghurs, as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups remain most vulnerable to detention or extradition, China is the largest financial creditor for five of them: Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Cambodia, and Burma, leading to deals where Jardine said local leaders “trade human rights for economic opportunity.”

Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that has swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province and extended the effort abroad to intimate those who fled repression into silence or extradite them back to China.

3. From Xinjiang To Kazakhstan

My colleague Nurtai Lahanuly from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service spent time with 20 families in Kazakhstan whose ethnic Kazakh relatives from neighboring Xinjiang recently immigrated, and he had some revealing interactions with them that get to the heart of where conversation about the camp system stands in both countries.

The Details: Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan opened its doors to ethnic Kazakhs scattered outside its borders as part of a repatriation program that offered a pathway to citizenship, with China being one of the main areas home to Kazakhs abroad.

But immigration has been complicated in recent years by Beijing’s dragnet in Xinjiang, which has targeted Uyghurs but also caught up ethnic Kazakhs and Kazakh citizens.

The new arrivals that Nurtai interviewed were mostly middle-aged or elderly and came to Kazakhstan to be close to family that had already immigrated to the Central Asian country.

In one exchange, Oraltay Nurdynay, a 59-year-old ethnic Kazakh who recently immigrated, denied the existence of the camp system inside China when first asked about it and expressed concern about his Kazakh citizenship application being denied if he criticized China due to Nur-Sultan’s close relationship with Beijing. Later, he admitted that he had been pressured to sign documents upon entering Kazakhstan saying that he wouldn’t discuss Chinese policies inside the country.

But Yeraly Sakanuly, Nurdynay's former neighbor in China who immigrated earlier to Kazakhstan, spoke more openly about the friends and relatives who are still in the camp system in Xinjiang, many of whom were sentenced for simply practicing their Muslim faith openly.

Across The Supercontinent

Showcase: Serbia has presented for the first time the FK-3 air-defense system recently purchased from China, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

An Evolving Line: Since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, China’s state-run media have emerged as a potent outlet for Kremlin propaganda, but a recent interview with Ukraine’s foreign minister, where he was given space to freely criticize Moscow and warn about the fallout from backing the Kremlin, may point to some subtle changes. I explored what it could mean here.

Touchdown In Tokyo: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made his first trip to the Asia-Pacific, and unlike his predecessor, Angela Merkel, who visited China during her first trip to the region, Scholz went to Japan.

New Routes: As Western sanctions have hampered overland trade that relied on Russian rail lines to get Chinese goods to Europe, Beijing has opened new routes moving through Central Asia and the Caucasus to get to Germany.

One Thing To Watch

The groundwork continues to get laid for Xi to take up a third term in power as leader of the Communist Party at its 20th congress later this year.

Beijing has already made moves to centralize more power across China’s provinces, and additional moves to avoid any hiccups for Xi are set to come. There’s no fixed date for the congress, but the past few have been held in either October or November, although the decisions for top jobs take place in advance and behind closed doors. One coming venue is a seaside retreat by Communist Party power brokers in Beidaihe that is usually held in July or August, where they lobby for their top picks.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

A woman in Hong Kong stands in front of TV screens showing the news that Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24.

China has emerged as a potent outlet for Kremlin disinformation and propaganda for its February invasion of Ukraine, with Beijing officials and state media echoing the Kremlin's justification for the war and often parroting false claims about events while ignoring commentary from Kyiv.

But Chinese state news agency Xinhua made the rare move on April 30 of giving Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba uncensored space to criticize the Kremlin. It also let him push for China to play a larger role in bringing Russia to the negotiating table and warn about the global consequences for Beijing in sticking with Moscow amid mounting international pressure and fallout.

“Russia is jeopardizing Chinese leaders’ Belt and Road Initiative,” Kuleba said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project. “This war is not in line with China’s interests. The global food crisis and economic problems...will pose a serious threat to the Chinese economy.”

The interview with Kuleba appeared shortly after a similar one the same day with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which he pushed familiar Russian talking points about Ukraine being run by far-right nationalists and engaging in a Western-led proxy war with Moscow.

But while the contrasting interviews do not suggest an imminent change in Chinese policy, publishing Kuleba’s words verbatim -- where he painted Russia as a threat to global stability and an unreliable ally for Beijing -- marks an evolving line for Chinese propaganda amid the Ukraine crisis that is slowly incorporating more Ukrainian viewpoints while taking aim at the United States as the instigator of the conflict.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.

Bolstered by nearly a decade of cooperation in international media -- including pledges signed by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin dating back to 2013 -- and a deepening partnership against the West that both leaders characterized as a “no-limits” friendship in February, Chinese state-controlled outlets have helped spread Moscow’s narrative of the war to their massive audiences at home and abroad.

China's tightly controlled media do not refer to the war as a Russian invasion and have instead used the Kremlin terminology, calling it a “special military operation.” Elsewhere, Chinese channels have pushed a Russian false claim that the United States runs dangerous bioweapons labs in Ukraine, have asserted that the bombing of a children’s hospital in Mariupol and the extrajudicial killing of civilians in the town of Bucha were hoaxes, and have suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was being controlled by U.S. billionaire George Soros.

“The speed with which the topic was seeded into the Chinese information environment shows the ease with which [Chinese and Russian] state-media cooperation can sow disinformation by citing each other as sources and expanding on each other’s angles,” Jerry Yu, an analyst at Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based organization that tracks Chinese disinformation and propaganda, wrote in a recent report.

An Evolving Line

China has one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and is mostly made up of state-backed outlets, with its Internet and social media platforms monitored by a vast censorship apparatus that removes any information deemed sensitive.

Since Russia’s February 24 invasion, China has walked a careful diplomatic line and looked to distance itself from Moscow’s war while avoiding any criticism of its actions.

While experts say Beijing is highly unlikely to drop Moscow as a partner, they acknowledge that Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the economic and political blowback it has caused does not sit well with China and that Beijing may be looking to signal growing displeasure as the war shows no signs of ending.

But any speculation about the resiliency of Beijing’s support for Moscow appears misplaced when looking at the pro-Russian slant within Chinese reports.

Chinese state media still continue to lend their platforms to amplify Russian propaganda, often citing Kremlin officials and Russian-controlled media as their news sources, according to the China Digital Times, a U.S.-based group that tracks Chinese online censorship and discussion, which also notes that outlets receive regular state directives that guide their coverage.

Beijing has stayed consistent since early in the war with its line that NATO -- and the United States in particular -- are to blame for provoking Russia into attacking its neighbor.

People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine.
People in a Hong Kong restaurant watch a broadcast as Russian troops invade Ukraine.

But the nature of coverage has shifted during the 10 weeks of the conflict.

Some Chinese reports and social media posts have covered news much like that of Western media, pointing to the growing humanitarian cost of the war and efforts by international bodies like the United Nations to provide aid.

But this line has been adopted slowly. The state broadcaster CCTV, for example, didn't mention civilian casualties from Russian attacks until the third week of the war.

While criticism of Zelenskiy has been minimal, so, too, has coverage of the Ukrainian leader.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

His regular speeches to Western parliaments and nightly addresses to his country have received scant coverage with state-run media instead only quoting Zelenskiy when he has criticized Western partners over the lack of energy sanctions or inconsistent military support.

Chinese media also began to focus more coverage on warnings about neo-Nazis in Ukraine, which has been a dominant part of the Kremlin’s justification for invading.

According to a database created by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group that tracks Chinese and Russian disinformation, Chinese diplomats and state media have tweeted about neo-Nazis more times since the war began than they did in the six months before.

In one notable example, Li Yang, an official with China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, tweeted a doctored photo in early April that alleged to show a group of neo-Nazis holding a banner with a swastika on it next to Ukrainian and American flags.

“Surprisingly, the [the United States] stands with the neo-Nazis!” Yang wrote above the image, which had a swastika flag inserted in place of a U.S. one that was in the original photo.

That focus on the United States amid the war in Ukraine has been a feature of Chinese coverage since the beginning, but also appears to be becoming a more dominant thread.

'They Killed People Systematically': Bucha Residents Allege War Crimes By Expelled Russian Forces
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Amid reports of atrocities by Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian village of Bucha, the Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, looked to absolve Russia of responsibility for the killings and instead putt the blame on Washington.

“It is regrettable that after the exposure of the ‘Bucha incident,’ the [United States], the initiator of the Ukraine crisis, has not shown any signs of urging peace and promoting talks, but is ready to exacerbate the Russia-Ukraine tensions,” the editorial said.

Beyond The War Of Words

While the full extent of any direct collusion between China and Russia on propaganda over the Ukraine war is unclear, Beijing’s rhetorical backing of Moscow has left it facing pressure from the European Union and the United States, its two-largest trading partners.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman accused Chinese state media of “parroting the Kremlin’s disinformation” and spreading conspiracy theories in late April while the EU warned Xi and other high-ranking Chinese officials during a late March summit that its support for Russia could jeopardize economic ties with Brussels.

China so far shows no signs of circumventing Western sanctions or rushing in to fill the void left by the departure of Western companies from Russia and U.S. officials told Reuters recently they were “relieved” that Chinese economic and military support has not materialized amid the war.

Writing in the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs on May 2, Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, wrote that Moscow’s war has created a “strategic predicament” for China due to heightened international tensions and the disruption of billions of dollars of Chinese trade, but that Beijing is still likely to remain in Russia’s camp.

“China blames the United States for provoking Russia with its support for NATO expansion and worries that Washington will seek to prolong the conflict in Ukraine in order to bog down Russia,” he wrote. “Beijing sees little to gain from joining the international chorus condemning Moscow.

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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