Rhetoric about the Ukraine War in China and Chinese Attitudes towards International Law
by Binxin Zhang
June 22, 2022
by Binxin Zhang
June 22, 2022
As in the West, the war in Ukraine has become a hot topic in China since the beginning. Unlike the West, however, where the mainstream unequivocally condemns the war, the debates in China are characterised by sharp differences of opinion between the pro-Russia and the pro-Ukraine camps. This article focuses on one aspect in such debates: those concerning international law. It is argued that regardless of the different positions, these debates reveal some common attitudes towards international law. Two visible features of these attitudes are highlighted: 1) an emphasis on the limitations of black-letter law and the importance of elements beyond the law; and 2) a distrust in international law, seeing it as a tool of Western hegemony. It should be noted that there is a lack of serious discourse among legal scholars and practitioners, perhaps due to the politically sensitive nature of the issue. This article draws on official statements, some scholarly opinions, and relevant comments on social media.
The critique about Western “double standards” is perhaps the most visible common ground: pro-Ukraine or pro-Russia, there is general agreement that they exist. The pro-Russians would typically ask why should one condemn Russia as an invader while applauding the US as a human rights defender, when it invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, and many others—including Yugoslavia in this list as well, and stressing the bombing of the Chinese Embassy. On the other hand, those who are against the Russian invasion tend to also mention various US interventions, stressing that condemnation of Russia does not necessarily mean turning a blind eye to Western double standards.
Another common ground is the acknowledgement of Western responsibility for the crisis. Chinese official rhetoric clearly posits that the eastward expansion of NATO is the root cause of the war. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, stated clearly that such expansion “sowed the seed of conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” “is undoubtedly responsible for the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.” Judge Xue stated in her Declaration in the ICJ Provisional Measures Order that “the issue of the alleged genocide… is an integral part of the dispute between the Russian Federation and Ukraine over the security issue in the region.” Although much more subtle, the statement recognizes the existence of “the security issue.” This is also widely acknowledged in public discussions and scholarly debates. It has been argued that Russia’s security concerns are not only about physical security, but more importantly about “ontological security,” meaning that every state needs to maintain a consistent international identity in order to feel safe. In this case, it is Russia’s identity as a major power that is threatened as Ukraine “turns to the West.”
In this regard, the comment given by Wang Jiangyu, professor of international law at the City University of Hongkong, is worth noting. After stating that Russia’s invasion “absolutely violated international law,” Wang stressed that “even a violation has its reasons.” For Wang, while a violation of law is wrong, it is equally important to consider the “reasons and emotions” behind such violations, because the ultimate solution of the problem can only be found by combining both aspects. This comment reflects a traditional Chinese understanding of the role of law in society. To understand a situation or to solve a problem, law is only part of the picture, and often not the most important part. “Reasons and emotions” behind and beyond the letter of the law should always be taken into account. Thus, whether there was a violation of international law or not, Russia’s action should be viewed within the entire historical background that led to the war.
The critique of a “double standard” has deep historical roots. In the mainstream Chinese historical narrative, international law is seen as a tool for Western invasion when it was first introduced to, or indeed, imposed on China in the mid 19th century. Chinese authors noted the division of the world into “civilized”, “barbarian” and “semi-barbarian” nations, and the selective application of international law depended on the “level of civilization” of different countries. Among Western powers, they applied their set of rules of international law; but with China, they applied the unequal treaty port system, which granted the West privileges and facilitated their oppression and exploitation of China. International law is considered as serving the interests of the powerful to the detriment of the weak, disguised by the rhetoric of justice and law and thus betraying “Western hypocrisy.”
Some Chinese scholars argue that these historical experiences have had a strong impact on contemporary Chinese attitudes towards international law. One often-cited example is China’s participation in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The Chinese Delegation had high hopes that certain territories that had been leased to Germany would be returned to China; but the conferenced decided instead to cede them to Japan. It has been argued that experiences like this disillusioned the Chinese and sowed deep seeds of distrust of international law.
Whether such historical events actually caused contemporary attitudes would be hard to answer. What is important is that when scholars try to explain contemporary attitudes by referring to historical events, they are creating narratives and memories that have an impact on contemporary and future attitudes, approaches and practices. When such explanations, narratives and memories spread widely enough and are repeated often enough, they become true not just as explanations, but also as predictions and even guidelines for practice, because practice and explanations tend to develop a certain degree of consistency which then persists. And in this relative consistency, we find something we call “the Chinese approach to international law”.
Examining historical processes helps to understand the feeling of injustice and a way of seeing international law as a tool of Western hegemony, an attitude that is probably not peculiar to China. These grievances might sometimes distort the understanding of reality, and thus China may need to free itself from this victim mentality. On the other hand, for the West, it is important to understand these grievances, the processes that led to them, and how they shape particular world views, and not only in the case of China. In the end, we will have to rely on this understanding to conduct real dialogue that can form a basis for peaceful co-existence, cooperation and shared prosperity.