China : China Response to Political Instability in Russia

China : As mercenary troops bore down on Moscow on June 24, 2023, it likely wasn’t only Russian President Vladimir Putin and his governing elite in Russia who were looking on with concern. Over in China, too, there may have been some concerned faces. Throughout the war in Ukraine, Beijing has walked a balancing act of sorts – standing with Putin as an ally and providing an economic lifeline to Russia while trying to insulate China against the prospect of any instability in a neighboring country. A coup in Russia would upend this careful diplomatic dance and provide Beijing with a fresh headache.

The Diplomatic Dance: China’s Response

Joseph Torigian, an expert on China and Russia at American University, walked The Conversation through how Beijing has responded to the chaotic 24 hours in which mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin challenged the Kremlin – and why that matters. It will be hard to guess what Beijing really thinks, especially as there has been little in the way of official comment. Russians understand that the Chinese media – like their own – are tightly controlled. Historically, Russians have strongly cared about how they are depicted in the Chinese press.

As such, China will be careful about what is being printed so that Chinese officials don’t get an earful from Russian diplomats. However, real signs of worry from Beijing may get out. In a tweet that was later deleted, political commentator Hu Xijin wrote: “[Progozhin’s] armed rebellion has made the Russian political situation cross the tipping point. Regardless of his outcome, Russia cannot return to the country it was before the rebellion anymore.”

Similarly, China Daily – a publication run by the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party – quoted two concerned Chinese scholars in its reporting on the Wagner Group episode.

Subtle Suggestions and Political Differences

  • Such commentary may be a subtle way for Beijing to suggest to Moscow it needs to get its house in order. These views could also serve to remind the outside world that China and Russia are different political systems, and that Beijing will not always act in lockstep with Moscow. At the same time, the Chinese government will be at pains not to give any support to a narrative that Beijing is worried about the strategic partnership.
  • Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, has already dismissed Western media reporting that China’s “bet” on Putin was a mistake. Such claims will be framed in China as a plot to hurt Sino-Russian relations. The Chinese government likely believes that Putin is still the best chance for stability in Russia and that supporting him is a core foundation of the bilateral relationship.
  • Some Chinese commentators have noted that Putin did emerge victorious quickly, and with little blood spilled. They may be right – although the insurrection is widely viewed as an embarrassment, many observers in the West also believe that Putin will survive the crisis.

Expectations and Lessons from History

On the Russian side, given the importance of China for them during the war in Ukraine, officials in Moscow will expect the People’s Republic of China to clearly express support for Putin. During previous moments of intimacy in the relationship, such help was expected and valued. In 1957, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev narrowly defeated a putsch, he was so grateful that the Chinese blessed his victory he promised to give them a nuclear weapon.

There is a question of how Beijing would have reacted if the mutiny had escalated. History suggests that the Chinese might be tempted to intervene, but also that they understand the challenges any such action would face. For example, during the 1991 attempted coup by Soviet hardliners against then-President Mikhail Gorbachev, some of the leadership in Beijing contemplated providing economic support.

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, a long Soviet skeptic, ended those incipient plans, and the coup failed. It’s hard to overstate how what happens in Russia has historically shaped thinking in China about their own country.

Diverging Paths: China and Russia Today

The birth of the Chinese Communist Party, the Cultural Revolution, the economic reforms of the “reform and opening-up” program from the late 1970s, policy toward ethnic minorities – all of these and more were shaped by what some in China thought the Russians were doing right or wrong.

But many in China may wonder how much they have in common with Russia today. Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping certainly have a set of conservative, Western-skeptic and statist “elective affinities.” But Xi’s war on corruption and the Chinese Communist Party’s “command over the gun,” as Chairman Mao put it, mean real differences.

The Chinese will likely take pride in their own system, where such a mutiny is hard to imagine, but will nonetheless be careful not to crow about it.


China’s response to the political instability in Russia showcases the delicate balancing act it must perform. As an ally and economic lifeline to Russia, China has a vested interest in supporting stability in the region. However, Beijing also acknowledges the differences in political systems between the two countries and will subtly suggest the need for Russia to restore order internally.

History has shaped China’s perspective on events in Russia, and the country will tread cautiously, considering the implications for its own governance. Ultimately, China values its strategic partnership with Russia and sees Putin as the best chance for stability, but it will carefully manage its public statements to avoid any perception of concern or vulnerability.

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How has China responded to the political crisis in Russia?

China has been cautious in its response, providing little official comment. Subtle suggestions may indicate to Russia the need for internal stability, while also highlighting the differences between the two political systems.

Does China believe in the strategic partnership with Russia?

Yes, China views the partnership as crucial and believes that supporting Putin is essential for maintaining stability in Russia.

How has history influenced China’s perspective on events in Russia?

China has closely observed Russia’s political developments and used them to shape its own policies. Events in Russia have historically had a significant impact on China’s thinking about its own country.

Would China intervene in the event of an escalated mutiny in Russia?

While China might be tempted to intervene, it understands the challenges involved and would carefully consider the implications of such actions.

How does China perceive its own system in comparison to Russia?

China takes pride in its own system, where a mutiny is difficult to imagine. However, it avoids openly boasting about it, considering the sensitivities of the situation.

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