Chinese Support of Assad; duplicitous and obvious

China vetoes the latest condemnation of Syria at the UN

Echoing the tone of many opinion pieces in the Western media, I too was initially confused by China’s outspoken support of the violent Syrian regime, both in the UN and through their press. The brutal year-long crackdown on Arab Spring protestors in the country has had left the Syrian government under ever weightier pressure from the UN and in the world media. This pressure has not only emanated from the West but also from the rest of the world, to the point where, barring Syria’s three active friends; Iran, Russia and China (and the “ALBA” nations of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua), the United Nations has come together to push for an official condemnation. But nothing has, or will, come of it; the international community’s efforts have been, time and again, vetoed by the small pro-Assad bloc. What is confusing to most is that China’s veto against the anti-Assad measures makes no real sense. China has no strong connections to the regime, nothing to gain from Assad by shielding it, and by supporting Syria, has very publicly isolated itself. All of this is especially confusing when it is noted that Russia was doing enough to protect the Kremlin-friendly Assad regime on its own; China had no tangible reason to get involved.

Looking through recent Chinese media discussion on the issue however, I’m no longer confused by China’s behaviour. Chinese support of Assad seems to have been tied neatly into the CPC’s diplomatic and ideological policy of opposition to the West.

Most blatantly; in papers and news sites across the country, Chinese newspapers have been wont to quote the Syrian state news agency SANA at its word while casting aspersions on other voices. Meanwhile Chinese state media has downplayed the government shelling of civilian areas, continually referred to the rebel groups as “terrorists” and cast aspersions on the credibility and ingenuousness of Western concerns. Journalists in China have not blanketed the conflict completely as they did with the opening half of the Libyan revolution; instead they are speaking out as if in chorus. Their consensus seems to be that regarding outside actors, it is the West and its allies not the Russian and Chinese led pro- Assad bloc that is to blame for the lack of a solution. Citing some nation’s propensity toward arming Syrian rebels and the US and EU’s political actions against Assad, an article from China Daily claimed that their intransigence is “only prolonging the bloodshed and making it harder to reach a peaceful solution”. The article went on to boldly claim that American condemnation of China and Russia’s pro- Assad stance was immoral, “opposing the desires of the Syrian people” and standing in the way of the nation’s stability. It comes as little surprise that the article concluded that contrary to the West, that China’s relationship and attitude towards with the Arab world was sincere, long-established, and in the Arab people’s best interests.

A similar article released late last year, this time about the end of the West’s military involvement in Libya, made the case that Western concerns in Libya amounted to little more than a smash and grab that was also intended to counter  Chinese influence in the region. The article concluded grandly that “the fall of Gaddafi is not the triumph of good over evil, but a triumph of the former colonial rulers in reshaping the African economic map”. This Bush- era conspiracy; that Western democratic altruism is always a cover for financial greed is still quite trendy in China and has been trundled out time and again to attack the Western moral character.

The strategy has also been utilised in the Chinese media to also imply Machiavellian moves by the US to reorder the balance of power in the region re Syria. Multiple Global Times articles released in early 2012 argue for the legitimacy of the Assad government by combating calls for UN intervention, despite the violent human rights abuses perpetrated. These articles claim that American behaviour in the Middle East is simply explained; “crumpling up Syria would mean cutting off an important arm of Iran”, and that China, seeing itself as a marginalised world player “now sees the need to confront it”.

The scapegoating and denigration of the US is a time-honoured practice for the CPC harking back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, though originally it was implied most often on an East Asian scale. As China’s ambitions grow, it is natural that the CPC narrative has the West plotting not just against Chinese people, but now all non Western people’s across the world. Never mind that the actors on the ground most recently in Syria (and previously in Libya) had openly stated that peace with each other was (and should be) unpalatable, making intervention necessary to protect civilians. Forget also that further atrocities have been committed and encouraged while Russian and Chinese political action protected these authoritarian regimes and that US governmental and corporate assistance was vital in keeping Egypt’s recent revolution relatively bloodless. Perhaps there is some truth in Chinese allegations of Western hypocrisy however; the US has supported its fair share of dictators and still does in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other African and Middle Eastern nations. Credibility issues crop up with China’s world view when they claim that Western intervention against dictatorships is wholly calculated though; the moral indignation felt in the West against repressive regimes is certainly real. It can also be argued that political support for authoritarianism after Bush jr. has certainly waned in the West as the political realism that marked the Cold War is slowly being replaced by ‘the peace of democracies’.

Assad and Ahmadinejad

China meanwhile, for all it’s talk of supporting the oppressed people of the world has many close relationships with authoritarian regimes and is one itself, a fact that prompts China to relentlessly ‘square the circle’; it sells itself and its authoritarian friends as nice guy alternatives to the West. The Chinese media has no problem for example implying that Iran’s political system is less repressive and nicer than America’s, or in echoing Tehran’s propaganda; that the Arab Spring protests (which the Iranians ruthlessly crushed in their own country) were inspired by the Ayatollah. The Global Times even argued recently that Western concerns about the obvious corruption and bullying at the vote this year in the Russian elections “is a way for the West to bring about splits in Russian society” and that Putin’s re-election reflected the will of the Russian people.

The PRC has a right to oppose the US through diplomatic channels and through other apparatuses of its soft power base, but it needs to be honest about itself and its complaints against Western hegemony first. Paranoid conspiracies, scapegoating others and obvious acts of duplicity will not win it the morality arm-wrestling match it has engaged in with the West… publicly supporting murderous and callous despots does not help either.

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Chinese worries at the end of Gadaffi

With the capture of Tripoli, as well as recent news reports indicating that much of his family is now in Algeria and that he himself may have fled to Niger, Col. Gadaffi’s regime’ in Libya seems to be well and truly ended and the aftermath looks anything but positive for the PRC.

A People’s Daily Op-Ed by James M. Dorsley on August 30th makes the case that not only in Libya, but also in the rest of the Middle East, that the PRC’s pro Gadaffi cum “neutral” policies have endangered Chinese contracts and relations. Particularly further afield in a destabilised and potentially post- Bashir Syria, as well as in the minds of Arabs, many of whom have been following the revolution in detail; the PRC has come off as a supporter of the “dictator’s status quo”. Citing comments from sources within the Libyan Rebel movement, Dorsley argues that Chinese assets and business dealings in Libya, despite rebel promises to honour existing contracts are also in jeopardy because of the nation’s political approach to the rebellion. Under the guise of investigating past corrupt business dealings (the majority of all business in Gadaffi’s Libya being corrupt) the rebel council is threatening Chinese interests, the article also goes onto to imply that Chinese refusals to recognise the rebel council’s legitimacy, as well as PRC media condemnations of NATO airstrikes, have shut China out. It goes on to argue that if the same happens in Syria, the outcome will look very much the same if not worse, as unlike with Libya, the PRC “cannot point to having done anything to stop the Syrian crackdown… nor can they point to any public contact with Assad’s opponents”.

Sensing the recent, none-too-subtle hints from the Libyan rebels, the PRC has attempted to paint their own picture of the political dynamics at the same time as it hoped to gain assurances of goodwill from the rebels. First, in an article from the Global Times on September 4th, the PRC assured that it’s “principle of no interference” in foreign nation’s internal affairs was actually beneficial to independence and freedom in the region. It implied that Chinese development and investment programmes, which do not discriminate against nations based on their politics, would assist Arab society in creating jobs, reducing poverty and in ushering in stability. This parallels Western nations, who have begun in earnest a policy of advocating non-support of violent or corrupt regimes. Indeed in Libya and Syria, Chinese investment programmes have notably resulted in jobs for Chinese workers (who later had to be evacuated in their thousands from Libya) as well as Arabs connected to Gadaffi’s and Bashir’s regimes, if nothing else, strengthening the dictators.

Another article, insisting on the benefits of Chinese “non interference” came out earlier on August 31st via the Global Times, it argued that in order to avert “Chinese losses” in the region, it should take a down to “earth approach”; being neither too for or against Western intentions. The article went on however to state plainly that breaking with China’s traditional policy of non interference would make the resulting “diplomatic uncertainties… unbearable”, and hence China would most likely not make too many waves, despite worries about being outflanked in the region by the pro-reform West.

Finally though, months into the revolution, the PRC has made some meaningful and pragmatic moves and came in behind the rebels after previous tacit support of Gadaffi, but only at the very last minute. On the 12th of September, weeks after UN Veto-partner Russia and long after NATO countries and much of the rest of the developed world gave their support and recognition to the Libyan Rebel Council, China has come to recognise the rebels. In a deceptively saccharine article titled “China respects Libyan people’s choice” the Chinese foreign ministry was quoted as congratulating the PRC for its policies of non interference while the bloody revolution took place and also in subtly reminding the Libyans of their obligations toward Chinese business contracts “uphold all agreements signed with Beijing before the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi”.

Further complicating relations between the new Libya and the PRC, the Chinese media has sought ways to denigrate Western nations involved in the conflict, despite their successes in both unseating Gadaffi, stopping missile attacks and in avoiding civilian deaths. Notably the argument that NATO nations only invaded Libya because of its’ oil wealth is still prevalent in PRC media, as well as unsavory claims that the rebel movement owes it’s allegiance and is subservient to the West. For example, on the second of September, China Daily used the “Fox News” method of airing un-cited ‘opinions’ in order to introduce and validate ‘talking point’ opinions that correspond with propaganda objectives. The editorial, titled, “Libyan People first”, citing the recent “Friends of Libya” conference in France argued that the NATO countries scrambling’s “to grab a share of the dividends of war has caused many to question the true intentions of the military intervention in Libya”.

Another article published after Tripoli had been fallen, by An Huihou on People’s Daily; in little over 500 words casts Western nations involved in the bombing campaign as immoral, inhumane, rude, brutal and selfish. Seemingly sourcing “tens of thousands of…civilian… casualties” whose deaths are attributable to NATO’s “enlarging of the civil war” rather than Gadaffi’s rockets and soldiers, An Huihou goes on to state that NATO’s hastening of the end of the same war makes them immoral for extending past the boundaries of the UNSC backed no fly-zone. Unsurprisingly,
these attacks on NATO airpower, the results of which have drastically shortened the war and bolstered the rebels, have garnered the PRC no new friends in Libya.                                                                           

Chinese attempts at spin doctoring events in Libya and denigrating NATO; as transparent as they seem in West are equally so in the Middle East and have been picked up by news organisations like Al Jazeera. As such, they could prove more damaging as Arab interest and goodwill toward the rebels is more prevalent than in the nations of the West. Further enflaming relations, recent reports that Chinese arms companies were at the very least, considering supplying the Gadaffi regime’ with rockets and rifles, caused outrage amongst the rebels who openly charged the PRC of defying UN arms sanctions. In reply China has promised a review of its practices and has argued that the discussions, leading only to the issuing of invoices to Gaddaffi respresentitaves, were done behind its’ back.

Unlike with Libya, after the Sudanese civil war and referendum, wherein Sudan broke down into two nations, the PRC were still able to maintain favourable trade relations and goodwill with both parties. This, despite previous PRC support of the status quo in the UN via Vetoing any and all actions regarding the genocide and unrest in Darfur. In many ways, the events in Darfur seem to mirror those in Libya, at least politically, but it seems that with Libya, the West had won out and the Chinese have overplayed their hand, and if noises from the Libyan rebels and Arabs on the streets are anything to go by, they are now about to feel the consequences.