Press release 2023/052 from

The war against Ukraine continues, China's position remains unclear even after President Xi's visit to Moscow. Dr Man Zhang from the Research Centre Global Dynamics (ReCentGlobe) at Leipzig University talks about possible motivations of the Chinese government, especially with regard to a mediating role between Russia and Ukraine. “However, judging from Chinese politics in recent years, whether the priority of economic development is still given by Beijing compared to its political agenda has become increasingly vague”, she says. Man Zhang's research focuses on politics, society and justice in China.

How do you assess President Xi's recent trip to Moscow with regard to the war against Ukraine?

There are two possible explanations for Xi’s visit to Russia regarding the Russia-Ukraine war: one is that the Chinese government, as it officially has claimed in the Joint Statement, discussed the possibility of peace talks to end the war and achieve international stability. If this is true, it is likely that the Chinese government would act as an active mediator in the peace talks. The other interpretation is that Xi’s visit to Russia is a clear signal that Beijing is “taking a side,” although the Chinese government has repeatedly denied this. The motivation for such an act could be related to China’s relationship with Taiwan (and furthermore, tensions with the United States). The Xi government may take action against Taiwan, most likely by force. Siding with Russia also seeks allies for its actions.

China has presented a "peace plan" - how realistic is it that China will play a role as a mediator?

In theory, there are some pragmatic reasons for the Chinese government to act as a mediator. At an international level, by facilitating peace talks, China could further increase its global influence and diminish the US’ role. The Chinese official narrative often asserts that the United States have been “igniting the fire and fanning the flames” in the Russia-Ukraine war. Acting as a mediator would enable the Chinese government to appear as a leading player and help it to compete with the United States for influences in global affairs. For example, China played a role of a mediator in the reestablishment diplomatic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing in early March this year. It was a game-changing moment both for the Middle East and for China’s influence in the region.

Domestically, China is currently experiencing economic difficulties as a consequence of its Covid-19 policies in the past three years. This situation could prompt the Chinese government to promote peace talks to end the war so that to open up its international trade, which has been deeply affected by its lockdown policy since the pandemic. However, judging from Chinese politics in the recent years, whether the priority of economic development is still given by Beijing compared to its political agenda has become increasingly vague.

What arguments, questions or concerns do you hear when you talk to your contacts in China?

Many people in China are widely discontent with the covid policy of the government last year. The general public, especially in places like Shanghai, where a hard lock-down was in place for several months, expressed disappointment with the government’s performance.  

Due to the long-term lockdown, citizens, especially those who are at the bottom of the society, suffered from financial difficulties. Many people’s income decreased, and economic pressure increased. One of the most notable sign is the slump in the real estate sector, which is often an important economic source for many local governments. The economic setbacks have led the public to begin questioning the authority of the Xi government.

Dr. Man Zhang joined University Leipzig in March 2021 to work at the Leipzig section of the Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC)/Research Centre Global Dynamics. Building on her previous research, she concentrates on the study of populism and Maoism in contemporary China.

We also recommend her blog post: “The Russia-Ukraine War also Divides China”, ReCentGlobe Blog, March 15, 2022