Visiting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and China's Premier Wen Jiabao shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on 11 October 2011. (EPA/TAKURO YABE / POOL)
Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is a persona non grata at the moment in the West over his aggression in Ukraine. The former KGB spy is living out his fantasy as the new Peter the Great in the 21st Century.
Though seen more or less as a pariah in the eyes of Western countries, Putin enjoys a considerable degree of popularity in China, which has a love / hate relationship with its northern neighbour. China lost considerable territory to Tsarist Russia and was allied with the United States during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
But the relationship between the former foes has thawed in recent decades. Putin’s aggressive stance over Chechnya, Georgia, terrorism and lately Ukraine has earned him kudos in the eyes of some Chinese pundits.
Last month’s editorial in the People’s Daily is telling: It says that Chinese citizens have sent potassium tablets to the foreign ministry spokesperson and told him to grow a backbone. The editorial says Chinese citizens are growing weary of the old Deng maxim “hide your strength and bide your time” and want Beijing to be more assertive in foreign policy.
Global People, a magazine published by the People’s Daily, the principal propaganda publication of the ruling Communist Party, chose no one other than Putin as the first cover story of 2014. The Russian autocrat was showered with praise.
When he first came to power in 1996, Russians had to queue in freezing cold weather to buy a few slices of bread, factories could not pay people their proper wages, Russian mafia ran amok on the streets and the country was under siege from NATO and encircled by colour revolutions, says the magazine.
Then Global People went on to list Putin’s achievements after twelve years in power, a member of the emerging powerhouses of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and a confident power that has regained some of its former imperial glory. Guangming Daily, another major state-owned paper in Shanghai, also heaped praise on the Russian president and said the population admired his “assertiveness”.
Chinese social media is also buzzing with news and commentary about Putin and his virile image as a strongman, especially on foreign policy and counter-terrorism, has been talked about in a positive light.
So why is Putin, a much disliked figure in the West, getting such favourable treatment in China? Yes, there is fraternal sympathy and support among fellow autocrats, but it does not explain his popularity among China’s citizens.
The answer lies in China’s increasingly nationalistic citizens’ dissatisfaction with the country’s foreign policy, which is regarded as weak. This is surprising, given how China’s foreign policy is widely seen in the West as becoming more aggressive and threatening to its neighbours.
The People’s Daily, the main party mouthpiece, ran an editorial back in January at the same time as the Putin cover story. The hawkish editorial’s headline, “Chinese foreign policy needs a strong man”, says it all.
The rising tide of nationalism in China and the need for the government to respond to it presents a unique dilemma for Beijing which is partly responsible for rearing a nationalist beast that has taken on a life of its own.
Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East West Centre in the US, explains Beijing’s leadership dilemma in Survival, an official journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The party has staked much of its legitimacy on its nationalist credentials. “Having fostered nationalist fervour and pride among the public, Beijing now carries the burden of living up to the people’s demands,” says Roy.
Many of Beijing’s responses to controversial events like the Tibetan uprising, the US accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and territorial disputes with Japan and other neighbouring countries are regarded as “weak and cowardly”.
Roys argues authoritarian governments like Beijing are not immune to adverse public opinion. In some circumstances China’s leadership faces pressures comparable to democratic national leaders who seek re-election.
His analysis offers insight into the reasons behind China’s more assertive foreign policy stance towards its neighbours and Washington. Even a strong authoritarian government has to cater for growing nationalist pressure, one of the few safe political spaces for Chinese citizens to participate in policy discussion.
Putin’s popularity is a symptom of a growing segment of the Chinese society that is becoming more aggressive in its demand for Beijing to get tough on foreign policy challenges. Many of them believe Beijing does not behave in a way that is commensurate to its status as an emerging superpower.
It is important for us to bear in mind that the rising tide of nationalism is an important consideration in Beijing’s policy-making process, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The infatuation Chinese citizens have with Putin is a warning sign for us all.