While Russian troops have battered Ukraine, officials in China have been meeting behind closed doors to study a Communist Party-produced documentary that extols President Vladimir Putin of Russia as a hero.
The humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, the video says, was the result of efforts by the United States to destroy its legitimacy. With swelling music and sunny scenes of present-day Moscow, the documentary praises Putin for restoring Josef Stalin’s standing as a great wartime leader and for renewing patriotic pride in Russia’s past.
To the world, China casts itself as a principled onlooker of the war in Ukraine, not picking sides, simply seeking peace. At home, though, the Chinese Communist Party is pushing a campaign that paints Russia as a long-suffering victim rather than an aggressor and defends China’s strong ties with Moscow as vital.
Chinese universities have organized classes to give students a “correct understanding” of the war, often highlighting Russia’s grievances with the West. Party newspapers have run series of commentaries blaming the United States for the conflict.
Around the country, the Communist Party has organized sessions for officials to watch and discuss the history documentary. The 101-minute-long video, which was completed last year, does not mention the war in Ukraine but argues that Russia is right to worry about neighbors that broke away from the Soviet Union. It describes Putin as cleansing Russia of the political toxins that killed the Soviet Union.
“The most powerful weapon possessed by the West is, aside from nuclear weapons, the methods they use in ideological struggle,” says the documentary’s stern-voiced narrator, citing a Russian scholar. The documentary was marked for internal viewing — that is, for audiences chosen by party officials and not for general public release — but the video and script have recently surfaced online in China.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, it says, “some countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Transcaucasia have become forward positions for the West to contain and meddle in Russia.”
China’s leaders have long used the Soviet collapse as a cautionary tale, but Xi Jinping, China's leader, has given that tale a more urgent, ominous spin. In doing so, he has embraced Putin as a fellow authoritarian lined up against Western dominance, demonstrating to the Chinese people that Xi has a partner in his cause.
It’s unclear whether allegations of atrocities by Russia soldiers, with civilians found shot in the head or with their hands tied behind their back before being killed, will affect China’s support of the Russian invasion.
But China has so far refused to condemn Putin for the war, which has killed thousands of civilians. Despite pressure from other world leaders to use its influence over Moscow to help end the crisis, Beijing has done little besides call for peace. And Thursday, Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, expressed his country’s commitment to strong ties with Moscow during talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in China.
The Biden administration has cast the war as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Chinese officials are mounting a counternarrative that US-led domineering is the source of conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere. They regard China and Russia as both menaced by “color revolution,” the party’s phrase for insurrections backed by Western governments. President Joe Biden’s recent comments calling for Putin’s ousting are likely to reinforce Beijing’s view.
“They actually believe their own narrative about color revolutions and tend to see this whole situation as a US-led color revolution to overthrow Putin,” said Christopher Johnson, the president of the China Strategies Group and a former CIA analyst of Chinese politics.
“Both domestically and internationally, Xi has been peddling this dark narrative since he took power,” Johnson said. “It allows him to justify his accumulation of power and the changes he’s made by creating this sense of struggle and danger.”
The documentary depicts the collapse of the Soviet Union as a lesson to Chinese officials not to be seduced by Western liberalism. China, the documentary says, must never follow the course taken by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader who had started glasnost, or openness, and engagement with the West.
“They’ve taken only one lesson from all of this, and that is you do not allow any freedom of expression,” said Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who studies Chinese and Soviet history, “because this kind of freedom inevitably leads to loss of political control and that creates chaos.”
The documentary credits Putin with restoring Russia’s spirit.
It shows Putin marching in a parade marking Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, and young Russians kissing a banner featuring his portrait. Previous leaders in Moscow — above all, Gorbachev and Nikita Khrushchev — are portrayed as dupes, bewitched by the siren song of liberal reform and Western superiority.
The documentary, “Historical Nihilism and the Soviet Collapse,” has been the centerpiece of a monthslong campaign aimed at party officials that has continued since Russia began its full assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to reports on local government websites. Officials overseeing the screenings are often described in official notices as calling for cadres to maintain firm loyalty to Xi.
“Loving a party and its leader is not a cult of personality,” said Zheng Keyang, a former deputy director of the party’s Central Policy Research Office and a consultant on the documentary, in a discussion about the documentary published by a pro-party website this month.
Chinese leaders have been debating why the Soviet Union fell apart ever since it dissolved in 1991. More than his predecessors, Xi has blamed the Soviet Union’s breakup on lack of ideological spine and Western political subversion.
“If you have the world view that you see in this documentary, you could tell yourself the story that the Russians are facing a real threat from the West,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University in Washington who studies elite politics in China and Russia.
The study drive is aimed at instilling loyalty among cadres before a Chinese Communist Party congress late this year when Xi appears set to claim a third term.
Political loyalty has become more crucial to Xi as Beijing tries to contain COVID outbreaks with stringent lockdowns, and manage a slowing economy. China’s foreign policy is under scrutiny, after some Chinese scholars posted essays criticizing Beijing’s refusal to condemn Putin.
Universities and colleges have organized indoctrination lectures for students, suggesting that officials are worried that young, educated Chinese may be receptive to the criticisms that Beijing has been too indulgent of Putin.
Liu Zuokui, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told an audience of college students in eastern China that the war arose from “NATO’s eastward expansion that squeezed Russia’s space for survival,” an online summary of the lecture said.
China, another speaker told physicists in Beijing, had to protect its strategic partnership with Russia from “intense shocks and impacts.”
The party’s demands for conformity over the crisis will make it harder for any dissent to coalesce into a pushback against Xi.
“There’s an ‘either we hang together or we hang separately’ attitude that comes into play,” said Johnson, the former CIA analyst, of Chinese leaders. “If it’s a strong nationalist approach, then who in the party doesn’t want to be a good nationalist?”