Fragile Solidity
No. 2 2012 April/June
Roderic MacFarquar

Roderick MacFarquhar is Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard University. 

China’s Strengths and Weaknesses in the Focus of Relations with Russia and America

The article is based on the material prepared for a meeting of the Russia-U.S. Working Group of the Valdai International Discussion Club, December 2011.

“Hello everyone! This is the Russian Embassy in China! We have just opened a microblog today. All are welcome to follow us!”

This announcement occurred on December 1, 2011, to inaugurate the Embassy’s account on the Chinese Sina Weibo website. Russian diplomats surely did not anticipate the kind of response that periodically overwhelms the websites of the Japanese and American embassies. But over the next few days, a BBC analysis states, there was an outpouring of thousands of hostile messages. From the nature of the attacks, it seemed that the netizens included the predictable nationalists of the Chinese blogosphere perhaps permeated with liberal reformers. Russia was taken to task for the imperialist sins of the Tsars and the Soviets and for exporting communism to China. A few quotations will give the flavor.

“Remember, Russia occupies 1.5 m. sq. km. of our land. They split Outer Mongolia from China, tried three times to annex Xinjiang, massacred residents in the Sixty-Four Villages East of the River, killed over a million Chinese in 100 years and looted Northeast China. They have never apologized for this.”

“It was you who spread the Communist plague over the globe! It was you who installed dictatorships everywhere! You are aggressive by nature! You are the origin of evil in human society!”

Another blogger also focused on a wide compass: “The Katyn Forest Massacre, the Prague Spring, the Baltic States, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster… What are these?” A woman blogger defended unity with Russia in order to resist the U.S. and Japan who were trying to encircle China, but she got short shrift: “When was there friendship between China and Russia? Of all countries, Russia hurt China the most during modern times and the harmful consequences are still with us today.” The British would hope that this opinion was widely held!

Another blogger underlined that the current harmful consequences were, “the yellow Russians inside China,” i.e. the Chinese Communist Party. There was one blog that reminded me of a conversation I had with a party cadre at Leningrad University in the summer of 1959. The blogger demanded that Russia should return Vladivostok, or Haishenwai as he called it, to China. Most of the anti-Russian blogs were quickly erased, but to this one the embassy replied: “There is no such geographical name as Haishenwai. We cannot return to you something that does not exist.” My interlocutor in 1959 indicated disapproval of a New York Times article on Russia’s vast Eastern territories with indications of what had been Chinese. This was at a time when there was no open hostility between Moscow and Beijing.

After the Sino-Soviet polemics broke out, it may be recalled that Khrushchev taunted the CCP for failing to recover Hong Kong despite its vigorous anti-imperialist rhetoric, and the Chinese replied with a warning that they had not forgotten Tsarist depravations on Chinese soil. The only surprise about these blogs this month is that nobody so far has mentioned the Karakhan declaration of 1919 which promised to return those Tsarist confiscations.



What these tweets reveal is that national images are slow to change. A PhD thesis written at Harvard in the 1980s revealed how difficult it had been for the CCP authorities in the 1950s to replace the U.S. with the USSR in the popular mind as the friend of China. Ten years later, the image was changed again as Mao denounced the CPSU as “social imperialists” and warned against a Pearl Harbor type attack on China. After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping was prepared to patch up the quarrel, but though he invited Gorbachev to visit China, he was increasingly alarmed at Gorbachev’s domestic reform policies. When Gorbachev came to Beijing, it was only the short-lived student democracy movement which applauded glasnost and perestroika.

Needless to say, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a terrible blow to Deng and the older generation of Chinese leaders. As young men, they had been inspired by the Bolsheviks to create the CCP. Now the socialist motherland was no more and they studied its demise and the successor regime intensively in case it had lessons for themselves. Under Yeltsin, Russia replaced India as a prime negative example of what happens to a country when it is not run by a competent single party regime like the CCP’s. Nevertheless, “third” generation Chinese leaders like Jiang Zemin seem to have had fond memories of their years training in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Jiang himself was apparently proud to have been told that if he had been Russian, his voice would have won him a place in the Red Army choir! Despite his focus on improving relations with the U.S., he helped inaugurate the Shanghai 5 in 1996 in which the PRC and Russia were the key players, and its transition into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001. And with the emergence of Putin as Russia’s leader, the conditions were ripe for a Sino-Russian relationship designed to balance the power of the U.S.

To an outsider, there seem to be three main ingredients of that relationship. The balancing of U.S. power has taken place mainly in the UN, through votes or threats of vetoes, often on issues of interference in the internal affairs of other nations. This seems likely to continue as an important ingredient of Moscow-Beijing ties. The other two ingredients, energy and arms sales, seem less stable.

China has been an eager customer for Russian energy for some years, but that dependence may be diminishing. Although China’s industrial juggernaut continues to need secure supplies of energy, the Chinese leadership has been diversifying its sources around the globe. Moreover, Beijing seems to believe that new methods of extracting natural gas from shale mean that China could become self-sufficient in the energy field. Consider this article published a few weeks ago in the semi-official China Daily after the visit to Beijing of Prime Minister Putin, when the two countries failed to sign a gas-cooperation agreement. The headline – “China Is Right to Walk Away from Gas Deal” – tells the story, but the article is worth reading. The first justification for the headline was the Russian price: it was too high. While acknowledging that Russia charged Germany $400 per thousand cubic meters, the author claimed that even at a $250 rate, buying LNG from Russia “makes no sense.” There would be huge costs in transporting the LNG to the industrial hubs, Shanghai and Guangdong; paying the high price would anger Turkmenistan and other central Asian countries who charged less. But the key argument was that energy prices would remain low because of the new emphasis on the extraction of shale gas, of which China, according to the article, had 100 trillion cubic meters in reserves, in addition to vast alternative sources of natural gas. These figures are presumably official since the author is chief information officer of an energy-related information network, though the China Daily carefully stated that his opinions did not necessarily reflect those of the paper.

One reason for the paper keeping the author, Han Xiaoping, at arms length may have been a slightly anti-Russian tone in his article. He wrote that the last thing Russia would want to hear was that oil and gas prices would stay relative low because of the financial crisis. He added: “Another thing that would hardly be music to Russia’s ears is the prospect of China becoming energy independent.”

Mr. Han’s analysis obtains additional credence from the recent SIPRI Policy Paper, “China’s Energy and Security Relations with Russia,” authored primarily by Linda Jakobson and Paul Holtom. They say that “energy cooperation between China and Russia is modest… Chinese experts highlight a number of challenges for future cooperation on oil, such as Russia’s declining production in Siberia, barriers to foreign upstream investment in Russia and pricing disputes… Meanwhile, China is diversifying energy imports and the government has drafted an ambitious plan to explore shale gas reserves.” Nuclear cooperation continues, “but China’s determination to develop its own technology and competition from France and the USA makes Russian technology less attractive.

On arms sales, the SIPRI authors estimate that between 1991 and 2010, 90 percent of China’s imported conventional weapons were bought from Russia, but add that China had not placed a significant order since 2005 and list six factors that affect Russia’s ability to satisfy China’s needs: Russian technology levels; competition from other suppliers; quality of Russian arms exports; Russian arms transfers to India; concerns about Chinese copying; Chinese competition with Russia on the international arms market. The authors believe that the four joint military exercises conducted under the Shanghai Cooperation umbrella since 2005 have been successful and “could become a more important aspect of this relationship.” The outside world may be impressed by Chinese efforts to refurbish a Russian carrier, but the authors conclude that “the two cornerstones of the partnership over the past two decades – military and energy cooperation” – are crumbling. As a result, Russia’s significance to China will continue to diminish.”

What is equally interesting about the SIPRI paper is the analysis of attitudes as a factor in the relationship. Jakobson, a long-time resident of Beijing, has evidently talked widely to Chinese policy cadres, both academic and official, and there seem to have been similar discussions with relevant Russians. The paper goes beyond commercial issues to stress the “long-standing mutual mistrust between the two countries,” adding that “China’s extraordinary rise has changed its status vis-И-vis its neighbor, from a junior partner during the Soviet era to one of economic dominance today… In both countries, strategic planners warn that the present competition could escalate to a more pointed rivalry, entirely undermining the notion of strategic partnership.

None of the above may be new to Russians, but it does suggest that Russia would be well advised to reinvigorate its relationship with another long-time Asian interlocutor, India. The U.S. has developed a new relationship with India since the younger Bush administration and a breakthrough occurred with the agreement hammered out on nuclear matters. But while the Obama administration has paid obeisance to the need for a strong relationship with the world’s largest democracy, some Indian opinion makers feel that overall the U.S. neglects India in favor of stabilizing its relationship with China. Of course, as indicated above, a strengthened Russian relationship with India could affect its ties to China, but this would probably be an avenue worth exploring.



By their nature, Sino-American relations should be more contentious than Sino-Russian ones. But the systemic political differences were almost forgotten during most of the 1980s amidst the acclaim for Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening out. U.S. companies rushed to sell to and invest in China. But systemic differences were underlined as a major problem between Washington and Beijing after the events of June 4, 1989. Even though successive American administrations have felt it necessary to engage China despite that episode and subsequent human rights issues, politicians in the House of Representatives particularly have kept these issues alive. On most anniversaries of the Tiananmen events, some TV channel will run a video of the Chinese in a white shirt and carrying a shopping bag defying a column of tanks by standing in their way as they attempted to proceed down Chang An Avenue.

In economic relations, the Chinese exchange rate has been a running sore between the two countries for years, along with Chinese industrial espionage and failure to observe property rights of U.S. companies trading or investing in China. On the other hand, the U.S. has benefited considerably by the Chinese purchase of its treasury bonds, while the Chinese have benefited from access to what is arguably the most open major market in the world. The two countries have been locked in a mutually beneficial economic relationship.

Even more important ultimately are the strategic issues, and the two countries now regularly meet at a senior level to discuss economic and military concerns. Significant numbers of politicians along with Pentagon planners regard China’s gradual military build-up as in principle threatening, and probably part of, a long-term plan to force the U.S. out of East and South-East Asia (Asia-Pacific). The U.S. has recently responded by assuring friends and allies in the region of its long-term commitment to stay, and by implication to back its friends in negotiations with China of thorny issues like the ownership of the islets in the South China Sea which have the potential of being major assets for energy exploration.

China in return remembers (what most Americans have either forgotten or never knew) that John Foster Dulles once said that he anticipated the “peaceful evolution” (heping yanbian) of the Chinese communist system. Particularly after the events in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, this still looms as a threat in the minds of Chinese leaders; heping yanbian is mentioned regularly in Chinese articles. More concretely, they regard the reassertion of the American presence in the Asia-Pacific region and its backing for SE Asian nations vis-И-vis China as being a renewed attempt to contain or to surround China. If the government ignored this they would soon be reminded by the nationalist and even xenophobic netizens of the Chinese blogosphere who recently assaulted the Russian embassy, not to mention the saber-rattling of retired generals who enjoy airing their belligerent views on Chinese TV. Public opinion has now become a force which the Chinese authorities have to bear in mind and perhaps respond to.

But of course the Chinese leaders would not be worried about the half-century-old vision of a long-dead American Secretary of State unless they had domestic reasons for believing there was justification for that vision. And despite China’s extraordinary development over the past three decades, the Chinese polity is fragile in the opinion of this author. Let me briefly outline why.



The CCP of the 1950s was perhaps the best led, best organized and best disciplined party in the Communist bloc. Even the terrible famine of the early 1960s, and the dismissal of a revolutionary hero who challenged Mao on the Great Leap Forward, did not shake its basic solidarity, even if its relationship with the peasantry was undermined. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 changed this. The party’s high command at the center and in the provinces was decimated as Mao encouraged Red Guards to assault and throw out the once inviolable leaders of the CCP. Under Deng, most purged leaders were rehabilitated, in some cases posthumously, but the Cultural Revolution had revealed to the Chinese people that the high and the mighty could be maltreated too. The party’s prestige and legitimacy have never recovered. In addition, the massive corruption which infects all layers of officialdom – much worse than under Chiang Kai-shek, according to older cadres with long memories – has robbed the party of any lingering respect. All that is left is fear of the retribution that a party member can bring down on an ordinary citizen.

A second bulwark of the 1950s CCP was ideology. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s thought was hyped above even Marxism-Leninism as the solution to all problems, big or small. That could not be tolerated under the reform program, and though Deng appeased conservatives by saying that Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought was one of four pillars of the party which could not be questioned, in practice the doctrine has remained a dead letter ever since. For most of the 80 million CCP members joining the party was a smart career move rather than as an expression of ideological belief. And yet, Marxism-Leninism was the glue that the CCP brought with it when it created the People’s Republic in 1949 to bind the citizenry to the state as Confucianism had done in the past. Like Confucianism it was a totalist doctrine combining the basic principles of governance with directives on the behaviors of citizens, a meshing of state and society. Today, there is an ideological vacuum in China, with an extraordinary proliferation of official and unofficial Christian churches embracing tens of millions of believers, as well as emerging indigenous cults like the Falungong.

Finally, China is long past the age of charismatic revolutionary leadership. One would not expect Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao to have the authority of a Mao or a Deng, but Hu especially seems to be little more than a first among equals, certainly unable or unwilling to overawe or woo the populace (unlike “grandfather” Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, who regularly turns up, tearfully, at disaster areas). It may be that the succession of a “princeling” next year, Xi Jinping, will alter the profile of the General Secretary. But Xi’s problem is that he has no legitimate mandate. Deng did many things to reform the top ranks of the leadership, introducing term and age limits, but he followed Mao in believing that the best succession system was for him to choose. Hu Jintao was his last choice, which means that Xi has emerged as a result of a back room deal, which may not be a sufficient mandate to carry him through the inevitable crises that afflict all political leaderships. Another princeling, Bo Xilai, initiated a different style of leadership in his bailiwick, the mega-city Chongqing: a populist combination of a crack-down on crime without regard for the law and a revival of Maoist era “red” songs and revolutionary ethos. But for the sensational events of the past few months resulting in his disgrace, Bo might have emerged as a rival to Xi Jinping within the next Politburo Standing Committee.

What can happen if the leadership is divided was demonstrated during the Tiananmen events. The five-man Politburo split three ways: two in favor of the introduction of martial law, two against, one abstention. An apparent effort to summon the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to take over the leadership was stillborn. As a result, eight supposedly retired octogenarians, led by Deng, took over the leadership, imposed martial law and ended the student occupation of Tiananmen Square by lethal force. What was essentially a political problem had to be solved by military means.

The question arises, in similar circumstances, would a Jiang or a Hu or a Xi have the authority with the military to order it to kill Chinese citizens and expect to be obeyed? The issue is important, because, as is well known, according to official figures, there are tens of thousands of riots against the authorities all over China every year, over a hundred thousand last year, and at least one really serious riot every five days, according to a Chinese professor. The necessity for the leadership is of course to prevent a local disturbance escalating to the national level, which is why it was shaken by the SARS crisis and the melamine milk scandal, and was lucky that the Sichuan earthquake only affected one province.

The leadership’s problems are accentuated by its inability to control the Internet, which in addition to its nationist bloggers, is home also to ordinary citizens calling attention to yet another official abuse of authority. Polls suggest the central leadership is respected while local leaders who prey on their charges are hated, but the center seems to have lost its ability to control CCP members at the grass roots. If a local party official is uninterested in rising up the political ladder to the central committee, and only interested in using corrupt means to gain a better living standard, it is not clear how he can be disciplined. Since grass roots corruption is widespread, the only remedy would be to clean out the Augean stables with another Cultural Revolution! No Chinese leader is likely to go down that disastrous route.

Like China, India is beset by much corruption, “galloping normlessness” as one expert has called it. Many members of provincial legislatures are under indictment for some crime, often a serious one. Businessmen bribe their way to getting official concessions. The central government can move only slowly on its reform program because beset by rival interest groups. Most recently it appears to have backed down on its policy of allowing foreign retailers to invest in India. But unlike China, India at least has a safety valve: it tolerates massive demonstrations, even in the capital, and it has a political system which enables citizens to “turn the rascals out,” as they often do. So far, that ability has kept the system viable.

The emergence of China and India as budding global super powers is likely to be the dominant geopolitical development of the 21st century. Both are proud nations in which patriotism easily gives way to nationalism and even xenophobia, and neither will play second fiddle to either Russia or America. So both Russia and America will have to make their dispositions accordingly. What this paper has sought to show is that both nations, but particularly China, have severe domestic problems which could derail what at present looks like an unimpeded sprint to the top.