EXPLAINER: Can wartime massacres affect China’s support for Russia?

China has called reports and images of civilian killings in Ukraine worrying and has urged further investigation, though it refuses to blame Russia. That raises questions about the resilience of Beijing’s support for Moscow, but speculation about a weakening seems misplaced.

Here’s a deeper look at where China stands at this stage of the conflict:

IS CHINA SERIOUS ABOUT INVESTING ACROSSES?

In his statement on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian referred to reports of atrocities in the city of Bucha and said, “The truth and cause of the incident must be verified.” He said all parties should exercise restraint and ” unfounded allegations before the investigation was completed.”

Crucially, Zhao made no mention of Russian forces and gave no indication of how evidence would be collected or by whom.

China has a long history of providing political cover for its friends after incidents like the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in 2010. China called it “unfortunate” but refused to accept evidence that North Korea was responsible.

Beijing also routinely dismisses war crimes allegations against accusers, mainly the US, citing the Iraq invasion and incidents such as the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. China has backed up NATO’s claim that the attack was unintentional, never accepted.

HOW DOES CHINA VIEW THE INVASION OF RUSSIA?

Beijing early on stated that the US-led NATO expansion provoked Russia into an attack on its neighbor, although Russian President Vladimir Putin does not cite this as his main motive for the invasion.

China has abstained in the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s actions and, in line with usual policy, has strongly opposed economic sanctions against Russia.

At the same time, China shows no signs of undermining these sanctions or rushing to fill the void left by Western companies’ withdrawal from Russia.

Beijing has recently focused its messages on calls for talks leading to a ceasefire and avoiding a major humanitarian catastrophe. She has also provided humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and kept open a liaison with Ukrainian officials. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on Monday that China “doesn’t have the mentality to watch the fire from a safe distance, let alone do anything to add fuel to the fire.”

WHAT IS BEHIND CHINA’S SUPPORT TO RUSSIA?

China and Russia have grown closer under Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, aligning their foreign policies against the Western liberal world order.

China generally follows Russia’s lead in voting at the United Nations and has helped stem efforts to censure Russia for its military intervention in Syria. Together, the countries hold two of the five permanent veto seats on the UN Security Council, forming a bloc that can effectively thwart Washington’s initiatives.

The two are also closely linked economically, with China becoming Russia’s largest trading partner and a major export market for its natural gas and oil.

Just weeks before the war began, Xi and Putin met in Beijing and issued a joint statement, describing their relationship as “boundless.” Criticizing Putin would therefore implicitly criticize Xi, which China does not tolerate.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS AND POSSIBLE BENEFITS?

By claiming to be an impartial observer, China has won Moscow’s gratitude while largely shielding itself from commitments to take action against Russia. Beijing also points to the refusal of other countries, including India and Brazil, to condemn Moscow as proof that it is not alone.

Beijing does not want to see the end of Putin’s regime, but could benefit from a weakened Russia becoming even more of a junior partner in the relationship. That could give Beijing a stronger hand in procuring Russian energy resources and cutting-edge military technology.

At the moment the risks are minimal. Beijing has long been accustomed to being accused of enabling or perpetrating human rights abuses and has learned to ignore them or parry them with its economic and political clout.

As its largest city, Shanghai, faces one of the country’s biggest outbreaks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and a key Communist Party congress is held later in the year, China is on high alert for anything that could threaten internal stability.

HOW DOES CHINA KEEP THE PUBLIC ON ITS SIDE?

Beijing’s fully Communist Party-controlled media has reported on the killings of civilians in Bucha, but their reporting has a strong pro-Russia bias. The media has also amped up Russian disinformation, particularly refuting claims that the US and Ukraine are collaborating on biological weapons production.

Beijing has sent teachers instructions on how to “properly” explain the conflict to students, citing the US as the “primary culprit”.

It has also bolstered the official narrative with the distribution of a documentary ahead of the February 24 invasion, lamenting the fall of Russia’s former communist system. Historical Nihilism and the Soviet Collapse praises Putin and Joseph Stalin while accusing reformers like Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev of helping the US and its allies weaken the system from within.

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