China is stuck in two dead ends: Putin's defeat would be Xi's horror scenario

Xi Jinping rules China alone, that was the unanimous opinion a few months ago.

China is stuck in two dead ends: Putin's defeat would be Xi's horror scenario

Xi Jinping rules China alone, that was the unanimous opinion a few months ago. But the omicron variant of the corona virus and the friendship with Russian President Putin are driving the Chinese head of state into a corner. Did he gamble himself out of office?

When rows of Western heads of state and government boycotted the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in early February, Chinese President Xi Jinping could rely on his "best friend": Russian President Vladimir Putin, an "old friend of the Chinese," visited the Secretary General of the Communist Party China in Beijing. The attack on Ukraine is apparently already being discussed: As the "New York Times" reported just under a month later - in early March - the Chinese leadership is said to have asked the Russians to please wait with the war until the Olympic Games are over.

No sooner said than done: on February 20, athletes from all over the world will celebrate the graduation ceremony in Beijing. A day later, Vladimir Putin sends Russian troops to eastern Ukraine to ensure, as he says, "peace" in the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. On February 24, the Russian military attacks all of Ukraine.

Autocrats stick together, but best friends? Xi admires Putin because he is more influential globally than the Russian power justifies, says China expert Tim Rühlig from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in the ntv podcast "Learned again". But if Putin really is Xi's best friend, that says more about the Chinese leader's difficulty making friends than how good the partnership is.

Rhetorically, China and Russia are aligned after the attack on Ukraine. The state organs of the People's Republic adopt the Russian propaganda almost unfiltered, although the Communist Party is throwing its principles overboard in a way. It usually acts as a protector of territorial sovereignty in which other states are not allowed to interfere, for example when it comes to Xinjiang, Tibet or islands in the East or South China Sea.

Nevertheless, no criticism of Russia can be heard in the Chinese public. On closer inspection, however, it is noticeable that the economic support is limited to just a few areas. The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Chinese-Russian friendship are also said to cause displeasure in the Chinese state apparatus.

There are individual voices pointing to Russian violations of international law, explains China analyst Rühlig. This is considered problematic because China wants to be a great power and therefore has to act responsibly internationally. "You see that as endangered."

The DGAP expert is convinced that the People's Republic is not unconditionally on the Russian side. Because the attack on Ukraine is actually not in the interest of the country. The Communist Party hates uncertainty and risk - especially in years when a party congress is coming up, like this one. In the fall, Xi wants to be elected General Secretary of the CP for the third time, and thus Chinese head of state. Much easier when your closest ally isn't threatening to use nuclear weapons.

The autocratic alliance is purely a community of convenience. The Russian President desperately needs a buyer for oil and gas after single-handedly destroying the rest of Russia's economy. China's head of state is looking for allies should the dispute over Taiwan or the South China Sea actually lead to a military conflict with the USA, Australia, Great Britain and perhaps the EU. w

For this reason, the two presidents concluded an extensive agreement at the beginning of February, which, however, harbors risks. "Just imagine if Putin actually lost this war," says Rühlig. "Then Xi would have bet on the completely wrong card. That's not good in an election year."

Nevertheless, the China analyst has no doubts that the Chinese head of state will be re-elected. But the party congress is also about how many allies Xi can place in important posts, he says. At the end of last year, pretty much all observers agreed: very, very many. Xi was about to become sole ruler.

But then the omicron wave swept over to China. At that point, the rest of the world had already accepted that one had to live with the corona virus, but not the Chinese head of state. Xi continues to rely on the zero-Covid strategy to prove that the People's Republic is handling the pandemic better than the US or Europe.

That was true at first, but now it only works with draconian measures: In the past few months, one city after the other has had to be put into a strict lockdown and cordoned off. Factories have been closed, people confined at home or in quarantine camps, often without food or medicine. Often much longer than originally thought: in the Chinese economic and financial center of Shanghai, the lockdown was only over last week and therefore only after two months. A huge mistake that has enraged the population and shaken the Chinese economy.

"China's leadership blows its own narrative around your ears," Jörg Wuttke, President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, described the situation a few weeks ago in an interview with the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung". Xi maneuvered himself into two dead ends: "He can't change anything about Covid policy, and he can't change anything about his friendship with Putin either."

Tim Rühlig sees it that way too. A war defeat costing Russia geopolitical influence? "That would be the absolute nightmare scenario for Beijing," says the China analyst. "We are following this very closely and with great concern. Because the options for Beijing would be very few, but the damage would be immense."

Possibly also personally. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, George Soros said what seemed unthinkable just a few months ago: the US billionaire questioned the re-election of the Chinese head of state. The vast majority of China observers believe that this is impossible, despite the obvious mistakes made by Xi. But the dream of sole rule seems over. For years, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, the political number two in the People's Republic, has hardly appeared in public. For a few weeks now, he has suddenly been prominently explaining in the limelight of the Chinese state organs how the corona virus and the economy should continue.

Is Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping's Best Friend? Probably not. But probably the most important at the moment. Putin has to deliver, otherwise Xi will have a problem.