Has Beijing failed to understand Europe’s position on the war in Ukraine?

Foreign Affairs

Marina Rudyak, assistant professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg, talks about the tensions between China and Europe over the war in Ukraine, and more.

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Marina Rudyak.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily, newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got recorded stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and, of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to China’s travails as it wrestles with a surging wave of COVID-19. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

A couple of weeks ago on this program, my guests, Yun Sun and Paul Heer, joined me in sketching out some possible scenarios for the kind of world that China, the U.S., and really everyone will be looking at when the smoke finally clears and this terrible war comes, as sooner or later it must, to an end. That was all done in an ad hoc manner. But in the time since, I’ve been giving that exercise a little bit of thought. If in keeping with the classic scenario planning practice as I learned it, we’re obliged to boil down and radically oversimplify all the uncertainties we’re facing into just an X- and a Y-axis, then it makes sense to me that one axis should be geopolitical and the other geoeconomic. Either a more unipolar world or a more multipolar one in terms of the overall geopolitical shape of things. And either a more globalized world trending toward more integrated trade systems and data flows and tech standards and movements of people, or a more fissiparous, decoupled world — a more geoeconomically fragmented world.

Right now, it’s truly all up in the air. All four of these things feel possible, the scenarios that are generated. I think we can tell stories of how we got there, depending on what happens with the war, on elections or selections in different countries, and other domestic political factors in key countries. I think we can all imagine what these different scenarios might look like when viewed from various national capitals and from different ideological perches. Clearly, the way that the U.S.-China relationship and, of course, China’s relationship with Russia play out in the next few months is going to determine a huge piece of this. We have made that a big part of the focus of recent shows, but there are obviously other important factors, too. In this and upcoming episodes, we will be looking at some of those.

Today, I’m thrilled to be joined by someone who can lend just a ton of perspective to at least two of the vital and consequential relationships that China is attempting to navigate. Relationships that remain very much in flux and have not assumed anything like a final shape. Marina Rudyak is an assistant professor in Chinese studies at the University of Heidelberg with an interim professorship appointment at Goethe University Frankfurt in political science as well. Her research focuses on China and international development, but she also works on Sino-European relations and much more. So obviously she’s someone who can speak to both the important China-Europe piece of the overall picture, which is something we have so far really neglected, and to the China and the Global South piece of it, which is really important and also something we haven’t delved into quite enough. But her breadth of insight on China, on Russia and the war in Ukraine derives also from her personal biography. Indeed, that matters a great deal here, as you’ll see, when I ask her to talk about it, which I hope she’ll do just after I welcome her. Marina, a very warm welcome to Sinica.

Marina Rudyak: Thank you so much for the invitation, Kaiser. It’s a pleasure to join you, especially because I am such a huge fan of the podcast. I’m really honored by the invitation and yeah, thank you once again.

Kaiser: Entirely our pleasure. It’s just wonderful to have you, and also a big shout-out to my friend Neysun at the University of Pennsylvania for recommending that I reach out to you, he was absolutely right.

Tell us about your fascinating family background and how you ended up in a China-focused academic career.

Marina: Yeah, I am originally from Moscow and what you could call a typical child of very typical Russian academics, or Soviet academics. I was born in Moscow and in 1991, we went to Germany for one year because my father is a mathematics professor and he was invited to Heidelberg for a year. We left and the Soviet Union collapsed and like many, many Russian scientists at the time who were outside of the former Soviet Union, we stayed. We went for a year, never went back, and this is how I happened to grow up in Germany.

How I ended up in China studies was by sheer coincidence and not that an interesting story. But what became very interesting part is that quite quickly, I got interested in the political ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Only much, much later I understood how this actually related to my family history, because my grandfather was a historian at the Institute of Marxism Leninism, which was also the central archive of the Soviet Communist Party. I grew up surrounded by books about Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx back then, not really understanding what it was about. But somehow it instilled me with an understanding and with a feel for ideology in the communist party. And probably also the early years in primary school in the Soviet Union being bombarded by all these ideological concepts back then as a child.

Kaiser: Marina, when I said that you could lend perspective to at least two of the relationships, what I initially had in mind of course, was first China and Europe, which is one area of your specialization. And second, China and the Global South, which is of course, another topic you focus on. You do a lot of work on China’s development initiatives, including, but I suppose not limited to, the BRI.

But I actually wanted to start with another one of these core issues, the China-Russia relationship. This is something, as I’ve said, that we’ve covered quite a bit on earlier shows since February 24. But when we were chatting earlier, you actually took some issue with an idea that seems almost to have become conventional wisdom. This idea that somehow we can discount, if not entirely ignore, potential frictions between Moscow and Beijing over their long border and their overlapping interests in central Asia.

I mean, I think about how much skepticism there was about the Sino-Soviet split back in the late 1950s and even after it actually happened in 1960, there were a lot of Americans in the intelligence community who were deeply skeptical, who didn’t believe that these two ideologically compatible countries could possibly have such a schism. But anyway, this idea now that Russia is perfectly at ease with China building so much vital infrastructure in countries that used to be just 30 years ago, part of the Soviet Union, that strikes me also as maybe… Anyway, you are somebody who has spent a lot of time in Central Asia. I think you spent some years of your childhood in Bishkek and your mom, I think you said was originally from Tashkent, when we were talking earlier. So you see things differently from what some of our other guests may have said. Is the potential for tension, for dispute or even conflict greater than appears to be commonly believed?

Marina: Well, I think and feel that there is a lot of potential for dispute. It’s not just the potential for conflict. The conflict is there, but the topic is so sensitive that everybody refuses to touch it. It’s your classical elephant in the room. It’s so sensitive to the extent that nobody even dares to drop a word about it. I remember long time ago when I wrote my master thesis on China’s energy security policy in Central Asia, I tried to find any evidence of potential conflicts. Also, because I spent six months in Bishkek during my university time interning with GSF, which is the German aid agency, where the potential conflict between China and Russia just was so tangibly present. What surprised me that neither in the Russian discourse, nor in the Chinese discourse, and I talk about the written discourse, could I find any substantial traces.

This was just so suspiciously absent that you can think that the topic is so sensitive, nobody dares to talk about. Just from having spent time, both in Central Asia, still being pretty much connected to Russia and also to a certain extent to Russian politics, and having lived in China for longer than five years, but having worked probably as close to Chinese politics as you can as a foreigner, the feel that I get is that of course there is a big conflict. I think this is indeed, as you said, a big misunderstanding when you look at it from the west, because it appears so obvious that they would be ideologically aligned.

But the truth is, and we have probably enough historical evidence for that, that Mao actually never trusted Stalin. In some archival research I did for my doctoral dissertation of Chinese foreign aid, I came across sources that argue that actually China was forced by Stalin to stay involved in the Korean War under the threat that if China withdraws, all the Soviet aid will be stopped. It was not a love relationship to begin with and it never developed into one, not even till today.

Kaiser: Fascinating, that’s fascinating. I think it’s worth remarking that I am a believer in this intangible ability of some people just to have, like you said, a feeling for a country or for its people. I mean, I think it does to make a difference. Even in the face of seemingly contradictory empirical data, or in your case, in the absence of any discussion, I think you can still sometimes read into that absence a real significance. I do value it, I think it makes a huge difference when it comes to empathy, to national psychology, to understanding the semiotics and political communication and much else.

This is actually a topic I hope to explore in another podcast in the series that I want to get back to. I would love your thoughts on this because I think there are a lot of people in this data-driven world of ours who would challenge this idea that you can just have a feel for it. They would say that, “Doesn’t this just boil down to essentialism? Do your claims to have special insight into the culture, do they evaporate in the face of actual empiricism?” Again, I’m somebody who very much values the feel as much as I respect the data. Where do you come down on this and have you encountered pushback on this idea before?

Marina: First of all, as social scientists, we of course know that the answer substantially depends on the question we ask and no good social scientist will deny that. At the same time, when we talk about feeling, it’s not something “Ooh! Esoteric and intangible” as we talked about, but it’s rather, it’s an intuition. Psychologists know that, that intuition is in fact neural pathways that have built through experience, and experience, and experience and just through observation. So I think — and everybody who spent substantial time in another culture will know — that being in the field leads you to ask a different set of questions. As somebody who spent very long in the region and who saw the tensions, there is not much trust towards China in Russia, there is huge sinophobia in Central Asia. There is also not much trust towards Russia in China. I mean, there is enough evidence for that.

Then if you take the step and ask, “Okay, if we see tensions on the ground, there must be evidence for them somewhere in the sources.” Then you go into the sources and you see nothing, just nothing. This is proof. If something is absent, this is proof. For me, when I talk about the feeling, this is nothing esoteric, it’s just the set of questions that emerge in me and where the questions come as experience. I am aware of the argument colleagues make, that they didn’t find evidence for the tensions. But if you put all the puzzles on the table, maybe in the sense of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, where he argues you really need to map out everything and then you will see that some pieces are missing. This helps you to ask questions and to answer questions. In this case, if you map it out, some pieces are so visibly missing that it leaves you no other possibility then there is a tension nobody talks about.

Kaiser: That’s right. In this case, the evidence of absence trumps the absence of evidence.

Marina: Exactly.

Kaiser: Yeah, the dog that didn’t bark and how significant that dog is. I think that’s fascinating.

Kaiser: Before we go on to talk about China’s diplomatic efforts with Europe and other things, I want to get your take on where you see China more broadly on Russia and Ukraine right now. Just building on what we’ve just talked about. I think a lot of people are having trouble getting a sense for how firm Chinese commitments to Russia are, really, in light of especially what some of its diplomats have said and done. Ambassador Qín Gāng 秦刚 saying, for example, on an American television news show, that despite China’s friendship with Russia supposedly having no limits, it does have boundaries or it does have a bottom line. Then the latest example, we had Zhāng Jūn 张军, who’s China’s UN ambassador remarking at a UN Security Council briefing on Ukraine on April 5, today, by the way is April 14. He called the photos of killings of civilians in Bucha “deeply disturbing” and he seemed to indicate support for an investigation into what led to the killings. He didn’t call out directly Russia for this. But anyway, is all of this just PR or can we read anything into these sorts of statements, is your sense?

Marina: My sense is that on Ukraine, China has tried to walk a fine line. Or if you call it a little bit more directly, to muddle through. Something that we’ve seen in many other contexts, because in the end, China is always on one side and this is the side of China. What we can see that China tried to have the cake and eat it in a way. To keep the partnership with Russia, which is important at the moment, given the state of the China-U.S. relations, to keep the economic relations with the EU as good as possible and we saw the outcome of that at the EU/China summit, which shows-

Kaiser: We’ll get to that, yeah.

Marina: It has towards Ukraine, Chinese officials try to be as supportive as it gets. Basically, China tried in a way not to step on anybody’s feet for the sake of its own interest. Of course, in the situation as it is now, it’s not working. It is quite likely that China underestimated Putin, for certain it underestimated the Ukrainians. But in that I think everybody underestimated the Ukrainians, so China is not better or worse off on that than anybody else. It seems to be a nightmare. Chinese officials have been hoping it’s going to go away, but it’s not.

Kaiser: Indeed, indeed. You mentioned EU and relations to EU, which is of course, one of the central topics that I want to discuss. What has gone so wrong for Beijing on that front? But before we get to that central question, which I think you have a lot to say about, I want to build up to this. So maybe bear with me while we lay a little bit of groundwork here. I can’t remember who it was that first raised this idea with me in conversation. I think it might have been either John Holden or Robert Daly. As soon as I heard it, I recognized there’s a lot of truth in it. That is this; that for an American who works on China, looking at the European relationship with China is very illuminating because you can examine important issues like trade, like technology, like human rights without viewing them all through the lens of national security. Something which is totally inescapable, unfortunately in the American discourse. This is the case also for example, with Australia.

In the case of Europe though, Beijing doesn’t reflexively answer any criticism with this familiar allegation of hypocrisy, whether you think that these reflexive answers are genuine skepticism over America’s moral standing or it’s just mere whataboutism — the Foreign Ministry or the state media routinely does this with American critiques, immediately turns around — two questions. First of all, if this is true, what I’m suggesting. And second, do you think that this is changing now when it comes to Europe? I mean, my worry is that it is changing. I wonder whether these issues are also becoming securitized in the European mind in more recent years.

Marina: I think first of all, you are correct in the sense that there are certain differences between the EU and U.S. in terms of to what extent topics are linked to the issue of national security. And I would say that the EU just being this multi-state construct, which is very diverse internally, we see it a lot that the EU can’t agree on many issues due to this diversity. But because of that, I think the EU has a much higher tolerance for ambiguity than we see in the United States. It certainly has a different stance on the issue of national security and this became apparent to me actually in 2004. My father works at UF and has been in the U.S. for many years. I remember I visited him, which would have been 2004, it was just before the invasion of Iraq. I was walking around on the campus and I talked to students who were organizing something in favor of the war.

I asked them, “Why are you in favor? Why do you believe that there are weapons of mass destruction?” And said, “Well, first of all, it seems plausible and we are afraid of Iraq.” For me as a European, this was so difficult to understand because just geographically, we are so much closer than the United States. And I don’t know if it’s fair to say this, that certain national security assessments in Europe are maybe a little bit more realistic, more honest. This would be a very far cry to say this, but there certainly is very different levels for ambiguity and therefore probably a higher readiness to accept a multi-track and multi-level approach, which would be, yes, criticize China on human rights, but at the same time, continue to trade.

But as you said rightly, the situation is shifting at the moment and this has certainly to do with Xinjiang. This has certainly to do with the overall change of climate in China, which is hurting European companies. It has also certainly to do with the two years of pandemic and the inability to travel because the personal exchanges are not there, the conversations in between are not there. And what we are left for the most part, except for those of us obviously who work on the subject, is the official propaganda on the Chinese side, like the Global Times English newspapers. Also, the Chinese stakeholders are very limited in their contact to Europeans so we end up with the images of each other being based on projections and not on real interactions.

Kaiser: Yeah, that’s so well said. I mean, the example of these students in Florida supporting the Iraq War in contrast to students maybe in Heidelberg, just who were a whole lot geographically closer to Iraq itself, also, part of NATO, also part of the west, not feeling that security threat. That was very instructive.

Let’s talk a little bit about what China’s foreign policy goals are with respect to Europe. I mean, it to me seemed always to be quite straightforward and obvious. I mean, first it seems to me that China would like Europe to have a kind of strategic autonomy so that Europe eventually at least will exist as a separate pole in a genuinely multi-polar world with its quite distinct, quite independent interests apart from those of the United States. And so far, they’ve tried wherever possible to exploit and to exacerbate whatever differences there are between the U.S. and Europe.

And second, and I think for the most part Beijing, this is the true of all arrangements, whether we’re talking about ASEAN or anything else, they would rather deal with countries individually rather than collectively and the reasons are pretty obvious. That drives a lot of their behavior. If those are the goals and do tell me if you think I’ve gotten this wrong, but it’s got to be clear to Beijing right now, in April of 2022, that things are moving in entirely the wrong direction. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven the EU and the U.S. much closer together. And as far as European unity, well look at the European Council vote on Russian sanctions when the invasion started. I mean, it was unanimous and this signifies an unprecedented level of cohesiveness.

To top it all off, I mean, as we were talking about, there’s just all this increasing suspicion and distrust toward China. What has Beijing failed fundamentally to understand about Europe, or have they maybe fallen under the spell of the well, admittedly very formidable discursive power of the American media? What are they getting wrong? Big question, I know.

Marina: Yes, it is a big question. Well, first of all, I think the biggest part China probably got wrong is to believe that for Europe, economics and trade will go above everything forever. I mean, this is certainly not the case. For me, it was really surprising looking at the EU/China summit, just how wrong apparently China got the EU. When the European agenda was to talk about Ukraine and to talk actually about human rights and the Chinese side wanted to talk about more positive things. Up to the point that I don’t know it was intentional or not, that the Chinese state media published Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 remarks on the summit, which were very much trade focused and focused on that the EU needs a strategic autonomy, and on and so forth. Published it in the middle of the summit, before the summit was even finished.

I think what China substantially underestimated is that, well, China is not the only country that is ready to chīkǔ 吃苦, to eat bitterness. This is something the Chinese believe that Europe will swallow certain things to keep the trade relations going. This is by the way, a blind spot I see not only in China, but actually at the same time in Russia and in Europe and in the United States. That everyone believes that they are the only one who care about values. It’s the Americans thought that the trade war would change something among Chinese people. The Americans and the Europeans collectively thought that imposing sanctions on Russia will lead to the Russian population to revolt against Putin. Certainly not the case. If we know something about — I’m exaggerating about Russia, but it’s that people really can suffer and are ready to suffer for ideas, ideology, and the czar. It’s also like Russia underestimated the Europeans will be ready to have an economic downturn for values and the Chinese have underestimated that. This surprises me really, how this can be such a collective blind spot.

Kaiser: That’s amazing. I mean, you’re completely right, you’re right. Everyone thinks that they’re the only principled actor, that they actually do hew to their values, and everyone else is actually ultimately motivated by money. Yeah, when you put it that way, it makes absolute sense to me. I mean, I had always thought maybe China was particularly susceptible to it because of the Marxism-Leninism — this idea that everything else is superstructure, that the real structure is the economic relations of production. I mean, for example, when China’s response to what was happening in Hong Kong always was some variation of, “if we solve the housing situation, if there were more affordable housing for people, then nobody would be in the streets opposing this extradition bill. This is just a result of economic dislocation.”

Huh, but you’re right. I mean, I wonder though, I mean, if Americans really will chiku and suffer? I don’t know, we’ll see how long we can take this. Oh, my God! Four dollars a gallon gasoline! What will, in fact, Europeans’ reactions to say being starved of natural gas and oil from Russia, will in fact, the response be? Will they just pay more at the pump and suck it up? Or what are they going to do?

Marina: Yeah, this is a very, very important point you’re raising and also something I feel China has underestimated. Again, which surprises me, given China’s own transition trajectory. The whole debate about decoupling from Russian coal, oil, and gas, of course doesn’t land in an empty space, but it lands in the space of a debate that has been ongoing for the past 16 years basically. Throughout the whole reign of Angela Merkel, where the Greens and also to a certain extent, the social Democrats have been trying to push for economic transition toward more carbon neutrality. Which has been extremely difficult because of the interests of the German industry, which of course relies on fossil fuels. I mean, in German we say we are the export champion, export weltmeister, so all of that needs to be fueled by something.

At the same time, I mean, everybody understands that this is a transition that needs to happen. Both for climate change reason, but also to reduce dependence on countries with whom there is potential of conflict. What we see now is an opportunity to speed up this development and not only to push against interests that prevented the transition, but actually the opportunity to get them on the side of the reformers because the costs of non-reforming, the costs of staying reliant on Russian oil and gas are too high. Not only economically, but also just in terms of security and also public opinion.

Kaiser: This is an opportunity to win conservatives to this side, as well because these are things that appeal to them. Economic and national security arguments.

Marina: Exactly.

Kaiser: Yeah, you’re right. This is another blind spot. This is what Americans say, they make lemonade when given lemons.

I’m curious, let’s talk a little bit more about April 1 and the summit meeting between the EU and China. Of course, the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, called it a “dialogue of the deaf.” Used a phrase that might have gotten him Twitter mobbed here in the U.S., but I guess he couldn’t resist that alliteration. Anyway, as far as I can tell, his characterization of it, whether politically correct or not, was not far off at all. What was China actually hoping for? I mean, did they think that they would make progress in getting the investment agreement unstuck? Did they think that they could avoid somehow having this difficult conversation about Russia and Ukraine? Then I wonder what Europe’s expectations of Chinese behavior would be? I mean, did they think somehow that they would come out of it having convinced China to abandon Russia? I mean, it seems like maybe expectations on both sides seemed to have been unrealistic.

Marina: Well, I think on the European side, the summit was perceived as certainly being a very difficult one from the start. There were not many expectations of success, but there was an expectation to have a dialogue and to talk with China on Ukraine. Of course, to try and persuade China to take a stance, even if to give it a try. Now on the Chinese side, of course, we know that the Communist Party is a black box. But I mean, this is a really interesting question. To me, the leadership, or at least what we see of the Chinese leadership at the moment, seems to be unusually disconnected from what is going on in Europe. This is really surprising because China of course, does have Europe experts. But either it is that they are not in the environment, in the surroundings of Xi Jinping, or that he doesn’t have people who talk truth to him. Which would not be surprising if we remember the outcome of the elections in Taiwan where he was completely surprised because nobody have told them about the reality of the polls, obviously.

Or whether it’s again, the two years of isolation Xi Jinping himself, not having traveled, being very little exchange between European and Chinese actors. But I think what the Chinese leadership has underestimated is just the shared awareness among European leaders about the situation on Ukraine, which was certainly co-created by how Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is holding himself in the situation. This video phone call with the European Council where he said this may be the last time you see me talking to you because I’m staying here in the conflict, he refused to be flown out. I think this did something and the images coming out of Ukraine are doing something. I think China really underestimated this power of shared awareness and it also underestimated just the power of the civil society transnationally. Being the civil society in Ukraine that stayed to fight, civil society in Europe that is protesting and organizing help for Ukrainian refugees, or bringing things to the borders, civil society in Russia trying to protest despite huge personal dangers. People ending up in prison for 15 years just for naming this war a war.

Even civil society in China. I mean, we’ve seen Chinese netizens discussing Bucha and comparing it to the Nanjing Massacre. Bombarding denialists and government bots telling them would you also deny the Nanjing Massacre if you deny the authenticity of these images? I think all of that is something the Chinese leadership underestimated, because it’s so disconnected from what’s going on in the rest of the world and disconnected physically just due to the lack of really people to people exchange.

Kaiser: Yeah, I think it’s a combination of everything that you’ve just said. That there’s an element of Xi’s isolation from people who would speak the truth — but you talk to these European experts in China. Do they themselves have a clear idea? Do you sense that they’re also diluted or that they have a good picture and a realistic picture and just simply aren’t getting through?

Marina: Well, those people I talk to, I would say have a good picture, but they are not the ones who are getting through. They are the ones who are in danger of being silenced and have to walk really fine line to stay in their jobs.

Kaiser: There’s this notion that somehow no matter how much opprobrium, no matter how the economic consequences play out, that somehow Xi will stand by Putin. I’m not entirely sure. I mean, I still nurture hopes myself. I mean, I recognize that it’s farfetched, but I have thought at various times that well, look, isn’t it really the case that if you’ve got a super strong entrenched leader, that’s the circumstance under which abrupt turns in foreign policy orientation actually can happen? Because he’s invulnerable, he won’t have to pay a price for making a U-turn. He can just say, “Eurasia has always been at war with Oceania,” or just the 1984 style, just rewrite the truth of it.

I also look at some of the things that you pointed out, the way that a lot of Chinese netizens have been very, very critical and I almost sense that this discursive space in China is opening up a little bit. The other thing I look at is how incredibly sensitive they are to public embarrassment over the levels of domestic support for Russia. This whole kerfuffle over the “Great Translation Movement.” This is also when SupChina was attacked by the Global Times, it was also they really hate it right now when any news organization or any Chinese netizen group tells the truth about some of the awful things that other Chinese are saying about the Ukraine conflict. If we embarrass them somehow by showing how much domestic support there is for Russia, I think, where does that embarrassment come from? Maybe somebody somewhere regards it as a constraint on their freedom of policy choice in a very fluid and very high stakes situation. They want to be able to change their minds on this and we’re not helping by pointing out what Chinese netizens are saying. Some of the awful things, or some of the things that are coming out of news organizations like the Global Times. Anyway, I realize that’s probably very farfetched and it’s probably as locked-in as most people say, but I wonder what you think about this.

Marina: Well, I think that, I mean, you’re right. They are trying to walk a very fine line and walking the fine line includes not having the weight on one side or the other. I mean, what is certainly the case is that there are different voices, even within the core leadership and we see reflections of that. Even if we look at what Wáng Yì 王毅 is saying in support of Russian friendship and what the Chinese ambassador to UN has been saying. Clearly even despite this belief that Xi Jinping is the strong man, the question is how strong is he still? We see different voices coming out of China. This is one thing.

The other thing is that we talked a little bit about Central Asia and we should not forget that God forbid, Russia is successful, Central Asia may very well be next. This is certainly not in the Chinese interest because I mean, as we know, China is massively invested in central Asian oil and gas fields. We know that it has troops ready to cross the border should these fields be in danger. Something that has been built up after the Operation Desert Storm when they were a little bit shocked by what the Americans did in Kuwait and certainly when there were protests in Kazakhstan recently.

Kaiser: Yeah, I was going to say.

Marina: Russia sent in troops very quickly. We didn’t see a lot of reporting on the Chinese side, but just putting one and one together, you could expect that the Chinese government was quite shocked.

Kaiser: We should remember how many Russian speakers there are, especially in Northern Kazakhstan. I mean, ethnic Russians themselves, but also Russian speakers. That seems to be something that Putin uses as a determinant for the level of “justifiable” intervention.

Marina: Yes, Russia is still the common language and children still travel to Moscow for New Year celebrations. There is a tradition to have, it’s called the Christmas tree, well, the New Year’s tree, which is something very Soviet. Where you have before New Year’s celebration and there is one in the Kremlin and the best school students all over the country used to be invited. Still school children from Kazakhstan, from Kyrgyzstan travel to Moscow for New Year, the best ones. This cultural-

Kaiser: Thirty years later.

Marina: Thirty years later. I remember when I was working in Kyrgyzstan and I happened to cross the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan quite a few times by foot, they looked at my German passport where it’s written that I was born in Moscow and say, “Oh, one of us!” China is probably very well aware of that. They’re aware that they don’t really understand the region, but neither do they want it to become Russian again. Nor do they want to have unrest there because of Xinjiang, obviously.

To come back to your original point, where does China stand? I mean, China always stands on the side of China. This supposed closeness to Russia at the moment is probably because there is no alternative. I keep wondering and just linking to what Susan Thornton said in her podcast with you, if you ask where to offer a diplomatic way out, similar to what we had after ’68 under Nixon, when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia, whether if China would have an improved relationship with the United States, would just drop Russia like a hot potato.

Kaiser: One can only hope, but right now China feels like everywhere it turns, it sees evidence of stronger American alliance systems. Whether that’s in the east, where you have not just the Quad, but also AUKUS, or obviously to the west where you have a revived NATO. There is one cardinal direction where China can still turn and count on at least so far, a pretty positive reception. You’ve been working for many years on China’s role in development in the Global South. So let’s talk about China’s Global South strategy and European reactions to it specifically. Not just BRI and the European response to it, this Global Gateway idea.

But also the European reaction to China’s role, if any, in providing cover for the countries of the global south that aren’t completely on board with the European and American led effort to diplomatically and economically isolate and strangle Russia. Let’s talk about the vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council, for example. I thought that was really interesting, the way that the vote went and who abstained and who voted no in solidarity and the reasons why they might have, it’s fascinating to see. What did you make of that?

Marina: Well, I think first of all, I think it’s really important to understand that for the Global South, the war in Ukraine is the war of the West. There is a very strong feeling just about the difference how refugees from the Middle East, or from African countries have been treated in the past years in Europe and how differently the refugees from Ukraine are treated now. Even to the point that when African students tried to flee to Poland after the conflict escalated, they were stopped at the border. I’m not sure if it was the Polish or the Ukrainian border guards who basically didn’t let them pass and said it’s only Ukrainians. I mean, this was a huge debate in social media. It sent a very, very strong message to the Global South that this is your war, we are not part of it. The abstaining is not necessarily because they agree with Russia, the abstaining is rather this is your war, deal with your mess yourself.

Kaiser: Huh, that’s interesting. What about the broader European response to China’s efforts? I mean, do you think that they are in very close alignment right now? Does the fact that the Global Gateway seems to be in alignment with B3W, with Build Back Better World, do you think we should read anything into that? Does this look like another Euro-American entente to confront China in Africa?

Marina: Well we see a number of initiatives, both from the European Union, from the United States, from the G7, starting with the European Asia Connectivity Strategy and then there was the Blue Dot, then there was B3W and then Global Gateway. What all of them have in common unfortunately, is that they seem to be more about solving the West’s China problem, than addressing the development challenges of the Global South. Because I mean, to begin with, there was actually a wonderful podcast, Dan Banik, In Pursuit of Development, did with Gyude Moore, former Liberian minister of public works.

Kaiser: Yeah, Gyude’s great.

Marina: He’s amazing. Where he said like, “Europe is so close to Africa, why did it take China to come and start developing the African infrastructure? Why is there no European infrastructure development plan for Africa?” He also compared the BRI with the U.S. War on Terror, stating that the BRI was estimated to be $1 billion, if I’m getting the English naming of the numbers correctly, and the War on Terror was $6 billion. He said like, “If the U.S. wanted, it could have had six infrastructure initiatives for Africa or globally. So why did it take China to come first and now the west starts responding?”

Hannah Ryder of Development Reimagined, she really carved this really nice phrase I like to borrow. Is that we really need to change how we think about development. Development is not about them, somewhere in Africa or in poor places, it’s about us. Until we start thinking of development as our problem, China will be in the lead because I mean, no matter what the real motives are behind, I mean, the Africans understand everything very well. But China comes in with the story of a community of shared future for mankind and says, “We are doing development for you and for us.”

Then if you look at the Global Gateway, it’s very fluffy European principles. But what is really the European interest? What is it that we really want to do there? This is not spelled out in the Global Gateway strategy. When I was reading the document, I was like, “Okay, what is our interest in Africa? What is it that we really want to do?” Because the whole document is whatever is done should be according to our principles, but-

Kaiser: But what’s the actual offer, right?

Marina: Yes, what is the offer? What is our interest? Why do we want to develop infrastructure in Africa? This is an answer we have to come up with because-

Kaiser: Yeah, because the obvious answer that suggests itself is just well, we want to offer an alternative to China. That seems to be the reality of it.

Marina: And this is the wrong answer, which the answer should be not we want to offer an alternative to China. The answer should be, we want you to develop because if you are better off, all of us are better off. Africa needs not Chinese or European money, basically it needs all of the resources it can get.

Kaiser: I hope our listeners can hear those lovely church bells tolling in the background.

Marina: Yeah, I live in the old town.

Kaiser: Oh, that’s fantastic.

Marina: Sorry, yeah.

Kaiser: I love it. No, it adds some real atmosphere to this conversation.

Kaiser: But Marina, what an absolute pleasure to have you on the program and I can’t wait to have you back on again. There’s obviously so many things that we can talk about together. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Marina: Thank you for the invitation. Yeah, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Kaiser: Well, I’m not done with you yet, because we have to move on to recommendations. I’m really excited to hear what yours is. But first, a quick reminder that the Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina. If you like the work that we’re doing and you want to help us to keep the lights on, you can subscribe to SupChina’s China Access newsletter, which is curated for you each weekday by Jeremy and his crack team. You will dig it. If you aren’t already subscribing, please do. While you’re there, check out some of the other of great newsletters we put out for free, like our SupChina Edge business newsletter or our SupChina Vibe, which Jiayun Feng puts together. It’s all about society and culture in China, it comes out once a week, it’s fantastic.

Okay, onto recommendations. Marina, what do you have for us?

Marina: What I have for you is first of all, a book by Otto Scharmer, who is a German organizational psychologist based in MIT. It’s called Theory U: Leading From the Future as It Emerges. Its original background, it’s from organizational development, but it’s been picked up by now by a number of organizations actually, including the UN. This is about management and collaboration methodology that prevents us collectively from recreating and producing outcomes we collectively don’t want. Scharmer’s basic assumption is that we still try to find solutions for problems we have created with the same methodology that has created them. At its core is a disconnect from the self, from the environment around us and in the end also from the divine.

I find it really fascinating because it helps you really to break through blind spots that we have been talking about. Just very recently, he released a blog post where he used Theory U to analyze the Ukraine War, where he talked about the disconnect Putin had with the reality, also about the blind spots of the west. A lot of my analysis of the Chinese leadership at the moment is informed by his perspectives. Even if it’s not a China book, but more broadly management and collaboration, it’s hugely informed my research and I can only recommend the book to anybody just to start thinking how to resolve blind spots.

Kaiser: Sounds great. It sounds like it’s very much in line with a lot of the books that I’ve been reading recently too. Theory U: Leading From the Future as It Emerges, Otto Scharmer. Wow, that’s great. I’m definitely going to check that out.

I have a couple, or really technically three recommendations. The first two are both Fiona Hill- related. I just read a piece in the New York Times Magazine about her. That’s one of my recommendations. It’s by Robert Draper, it’s really great. I don’t remember what the piece is called, but it’s about Fiona Hill, it’s just a profile of her.

Then because it’s referenced in that piece, I bought the book, There’s Nothing for You Here, which is her memoir. Fiona Hill, of course, was the National Security Council senior director for Russia and Eastern Europe. And she was of course, the key witness in the first Trump impeachment. Just fantastic, so far.

I was surprised to learn she was actually opposed to Bush’s plans to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008. The lead of that article by Draper starts with her in her first meeting in the Oval Office and she made the case against NATO expansion to Bush and Cheney. Cheney basically said to her, “So you’re telling me you’re opposed to freedom and democracy?” and he just got his things and left and Bush says, “Oh, come on. He’s just yanking your chain. Let me hear what you have to say.” But anyway, he disregarded what she said anyway and plowed ahead with something like an extension of NATO membership. Enough to really piss off Putin, but I don’t want to litigate that whole thing. But it was interesting that that was her perspective.

She had really tons of great anecdotes. I’m not done with her book yet of course, I just started it. But so far it’s just been fascinating. She’s a very good writer, very thoughtful and obviously has a fascinating biography, which was part of her testimony. She grew up literally as the daughter of a coal miner in Northeastern England, the blighted industrial Northeast, and made her way, despite class and accent prejudices that are very deeply embedded in English society. She got a PhD from Harvard. It’s a really good book so far.

My other recommendation is a piece and it happens also to be in the New York Times Magazine, by Steven Johnson, who’s just one of my favorite writers on all things science. It’s about GPT-3, which is a really advanced new AI system that is able to create original writing based on prompts that you give it, just natural language prompts. There’s a ton of examples in this piece of little essays written by GPT-3 just based on prompts that Johnson fed it. It’s scary and really quite nuanced the way he writes about it and just really deeply informative. It’s so good, so good. Look for that one. Steven Johnson, it’s called “The Writing on the Wall” and it’s in the New York Times Magazine. Check that out if you’re interested in these things.

Meanwhile, I can’t wait to have you back on, Marina. This will be so great. I mean, I’m really glad to have met you and I can obviously see that you are a good all around-er and so thoughtful and so many great ideas. I look forward to having you back on the program.

Marina: Thank you so much.

Kaiser: The Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com or just give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @SupChinaNews and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica network. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week. Take care.