What do Chinese people think about the war in Ukraine?

Foreign Affairs

Yawei Liu, senior director for China at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and Danielle Goldfarb, head of global research at RIWI Corp, discuss Chinese public opinion on the Russo-Ukrainian War.

Illustration by Nadya Yeh

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Yawei Liu and Danielle Goldfarb.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily, newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of leaders and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to China’s travails as it wrestles with a surging wave of COVID-19. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 of this year, we’ve talked quite a bit on this show about Chinese public opinion, but thus far, we’ve mostly had to rely on anecdotal evidence, on the intuitions or the general sense that various scholars and pundits have from their social media feeds or from conversations they’ve had with their interlocutors, be they from China or from Russia or elsewhere and what they can infer from patterns of censorship, for example, in China.

This week on Sinica, we’ll be taking a look at some of the actual public opinion research and not just on Chinese attitudes toward the war, but also on attitudes among people in China, the U.S. and Russia toward one another and more. Joining me to discuss is Yawei Liu (刘亚伟 Liú Yàwěi), the senior advisor on China at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Yawei, welcome back to Sinica.

Yawei Liu: Thanks. Thank you for inviting me back to talk about this important issue.

Kaiser: Oh, it’s wonderful to have you. Listeners may recall that we had Yawei on in, I think it was November of last year, to talk about some survey research that the Carter Center had commissioned through RIWI, a Toronto-based survey research outfit, that’s using really innovative methods to acquire their data. While they have teamed up with RIWI again on a new batch of research, this time I’ve also asked Danielle Goldfarb, who is head of global research at RIWI to come onto the show and talk about the work that they did with the Carter Center, but also about other highly relevant survey data that they’ve done recently. Danielle joins us from Toronto. Danielle, welcome to Sinica.

Danielle Goldfarb: Thanks for having me.

Kaiser: I’m glad that you could be here.

Yawei let me start with you and ask, why does public opinion even matter in an authoritarian country where there isn’t this mechanism, the ballot box by which popular opinion can be made manifest in actual policy. Why is it important that we understand how ordinary Chinese people think about something like the war in Ukraine?

Yawei: Well, it matters in the sense that they still claim their system is people’s democracy, right? They like to say everything the government does is in accordance with the will of the people, but you also oftentimes hear Chinese diplomats making the announcement that even though we don’t do polls, there is public opinion in China. And that public opinion sometimes makes it very hard to make decisions.

Kaiser: Right.

Yawei: So in that context, it is also very important. Social media in China has certainly provided a radar screen on how vibrant that public opinion is. Although that public opinion, to a large extent, can be manipulated by the censorship regime in China.

Kaiser: Indeed, indeed.

What did you set out to find with this latest set of questions? What were the top-level questions that you had for RIWI in this set of research?

Yawei: It was a quick decision to conduct this survey because we initially published the op-ed by Professor Hú Wěi 胡伟 from Shanghai. He strongly disagrees with the government position. So that made us think, Hu is in opposition to the government position, a reflection of the popular viewpoint of the war. So obviously Hu Wei is a scholar, he’s not even an international relations scholar. He’s known for introducing the concept of intra-party democratization. So that prompted us to do it. So the most important question we want to ask, which is the question really will help us to ask is, What do you think China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine is in the interest of China’s national security?

Kaiser: So that was the top question that you asked, and there were another couple that you decided to tack on, which were also really, really interesting.

Yawei: The other question we ask is, Have you seen the accusation that Americans are operating bio labs in Ukraine? If you have seen it, do you believe it is accurate? If you have not seen it, do you believe it is accurate? So that’s the second question we ask those that are being pulled.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah. Fascinating. I think we should just take a quick aside here and talk a little bit about the article that you referenced by Hu Wei, because this was something that got the Carter Center and the U.S.-China Perception Monitor a bit of attention, not of the necessarily favorable kind. In fact, your website was blocked after you published a translation of this. So, Hu Wei is vice chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Councilor’s Office of the State Council. So he’s no small fry. He’s somebody quite serious. What you’ve done, I think it’s interesting because since the outbreak of the war, you’ve been gamely trying to show that the debate within China over how Beijing should respond, the position that China should ultimately take with respect to the war, that debate has not yet been entirely shut down. And you’ve kept this going even after the website was blocked, after you got a lot of pushback about publishing his piece. Now to be clear, I definitely share your view.

I have talked to multiple Chinese diplomats and academics and the discourse I would say is not as closed as some people might have been trying to lead us to believe. Like you, I have pushed back against the idea that in China, there’s no level of support for Russia that is too high, and no expression of sympathy for Ukraine is allowed. That’s just really not the case. A recent example of this, while we’re on the subject, I think it’s maybe important that we bring this up. You tweeted about a couple of essays. One of them was a pro-Russian essay by a guy named Lín Zhìbō 林治波, which was actually censored for being too stridently pro-Russian. And then there was a response by the guy named Chéng Mò 程墨, which I assume is probably a pen name, which wasn’t censored if I’m not mistaken. Can you talk about these two posts really quickly and give us your sense of maybe where you think that currently, the allowable discourse, online at least, about Ukraine is in China.

Yawei: I think in the early days of the war, the censorship is such that you can only read or hear pro-Russia opinions. I think probably by the time we published Hu Wei, and probably after that, the criticism of Russia, the criticism of China’s allied pro-Russia position is being debated. That voice is allowed. So Lin Zhibo, as you mentioned, is a real person. He actually is a reporter for the People’s Daily. I don’t know if he’s still running the office, the People’s Daily office in Sichuan. So his diatribe, so critical of the U.S., so critical of the West, makes the argument that China and Russia is the most progressive force in the world. And in this eventual showdown with the West led by the United States, China is going to be — China and Russia and the progressive forces represented by them will be on the winning side.

So it really correlates with the so-called “time and momentum are on our side;” the rise of the East and the decline of the West. But I guess that claim is so ardent and talking about how Russia’s war against Ukraine is so just, that eventually they’re going to win, maybe it’s too far for the government to be associated with that position. And given the fact that he himself works for a media outlet. So I was searching for it. Most of the mainstream websites, particularly where it was first published or Guancha wang operated by the Fudan group, the China Institute Group, Zhāng Wéiwèi 张维为 and Eric Li (Lǐ Shìmò 李世默) — it was gone from there. It was gone from the Fenghuang website, but eventually I found it on one of the most leftist websites called the Red Song website. It’s still there. I don’t know why it was able to be left alone there.

And the other article, I agree with you, Cheng Mo is probably — we don’t know his true identity. Lin Zhibo, basically his article is long, it’s divided into 18 sections, but Cheng Mo’s article is not a direct response to the article we talked about. He actually tried to answer 32 questions related to the war in Ukraine, but he doesn’t want to talk about the relationship between China and the war. And what’s most amazing about this article is the disinformation that’s being widely distributed in China. For example, that President Zelenskyy, he looks very energetic, but he’s actually supported by drugs. That the destruction of the Russian cruise missile, is actually was a fire. It was not destroyed by…

Kaiser: Right. The Moskva, the missile cruiser, right?

Yawei: I think there’s a lot of those kind of informations that are popular in China. He tried to debunk them all. But he doesn’t want to get into the position to say that the Chinese government position is not a sustainable position.

Kaiser: I see. I see. So he doesn’t go after directly Beijing’s stated policy. He just goes after a lot of the misinformation that’s out there circulating.

Yawei: I think one thing he does go against, the other article, is that the Russians’ slow pace of occupying Ukraine has a lot to do with their care for the life of the civilians. And, he said, no, that’s not the case. If you care to look at what happened in Bucha and what happened in Mariupol, you’re not going to say anything like that. So he is against Lin Zhibo on that front.

Kaiser: Okay. All right. So that was an interesting sidebar. Let’s get back into the actual survey data that you guys did. Before we dig into the results commissioned actually by the Carter Center Danielle, perhaps you could remind listeners who don’t remember or who didn’t hear our show with Yawei and his colleague, Michael, from November, remind us how RIWI conducts its surveys and how that addresses some of the problems that we ordinarily encounter when we’re trying to do survey research in countries like China in particular.

Danielle: Absolutely. So Yawei has already pointed out some of the issues involved with, for example, getting data from social media. Got big data there, but a lot of that can be censored. And you’re hearing really from the most vocal people. And there’s obviously social desirability bias to express views in a certain way.

Kaiser: Hmm.

Danielle: We know that another way that you typically get data would be through a typical panel, where you have people who are incentivized to a narrow group of people that are paid and habitual survey takers. And what we’re doing at RIWI is we’re trying to address biases — minimize the biases associated with some of those conventional approaches. And the way that we do that is by using a technology called random domain intercept technology.

It’s sort of like, I don’t know for those of you who remember who are listening, but remember landlines where people would randomly pick a number out of the phone book and call; This was called random digit dialing. It’s the analog for the internet. So we’re randomly intercepting people online. The way we do that is we have hundreds and thousands of parked, but inactive, web domains that are rotating at any one time. And you might come across an error message if you’re surfing the web. If we happen to occupy one of those web domains at that time, then you would be exposed to a survey. By doing that in this randomized fashion, where anybody who is online has the potential of receiving one of these surveys, and therefore we’re getting access to people that are non-typically surveyed, non-typical survey takers.

So in China, when we survey our respondents, we know that 60% of them tell us they’ve never taken a survey before. More than 80% haven’t taken one in the past month. It’s really people that are from all parts of the country, not just tier one and tier two cities; tier three, tier four, rural. If you have a smartphone, we can access you; Any device, smartphone, desktop, tablet, sometimes even people respond on Teslas. And so that way we’re really accessing people that are not typical survey takers, and the other feature that’s really important about the way we gather data in China — and I should just also mention we’re in every country in the world, except for North Korea, so we work in places where it’s difficult to get more reliable information. and when there’s restricted information environments — and one really key feature of the technology and the approach is that again, with conventional survey methodologies, if you’re incentivizing someone, you need to get their contact information, you need to somehow be able to give them that incentive. We don’t want to collect any personally identifiable information because we want to minimize the chance that people will lie and maximize the chance that they’re going to be honest. And so we don’t collect any personally identifiable information. So it’s really truly anonymous.

Kaiser: Yeah. Are you willing to share some examples that you could cite where RIWI’s approach yielded a better sense of public opinion than more traditional polling methods did? I can think of a couple of times where we’ve been pretty badly led astray by polling data, right?

Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. RIWI’s done all kinds of things. The original application was for pandemic monitoring during a different pandemic, but it’s been applied to all sorts of global events. The main ones that come up as places where conventional polls did not do the trick, they led us astray. So one example is the Brexit vote. In that case, the conventional polls anticipated that more people would come out and vote, but vote against Brexit. But what they didn’t do is they didn’t speak to all the disengaged, young people who didn’t plan to come out and vote. And so when we used the RIWI methodology, in fact, we had a bunch of academics who were looking into this before the Brexit vote, and they said, Look, these young people cannot be counted on to come vote.

You got to speak to these young people. The conventional polls are not accessing those people. The other big example of course, is what was supposedly a surprise election win for President Trump in 2016. But the RIWI technology was able to tap into those Trump voters and able to say, Look, we actually call a Trump election in 2016. And similarly in 2020, the methodology actually said that this is going to be a much closer election than the polls predicted. And actually in the French election we’re also able to get data that was much closer to the actual result than conventional polls did. So we’ve got a lot of examples of where this has worked to be able to access people who are not typically sharing their opinion, and we’re doing it in all kinds of conflict zones, all kinds of places all around the world.

Kaiser: So you guys have all these domains that you’re parked on and people hit them. And instead of the usual error message, they are asked to take a quick survey, right?

Danielle: Yeah.

Kaiser: Do you know whether some of the URLs that you have are URLs that are blocked in China or are you perhaps able to get sites that you know to be blocked in China and somehow redirect inbound traffic from Chinese IP addresses to those surveys?

Danielle: Yeah, that’s a good question. So the kinds of web domains that we are using, that we are occupying for, could be a fraction, could be a very short period of time. They are the ones that are inactive.

Kaiser: Oh, okay.

Danielle: In the U.S., Facebook.com, that’s an active domain. We would not be using that domain.

Kaiser: Of course.

Danielle: We are using inactive domain. So, if a website is blocked in China, we’re not using that domain, but we may be using other domains that, if people, whatever they’re searching for, if they come across an error message, then we potentially be occupying that domain. And we rotate these domains so that they’re really representative of the web using population. Each day we’re capturing a new random cohort of the population. That gives us confidence if they tell us the same thing day after day, that we’re getting something reliable.

Kaiser: Fantastic. So let’s take a look now at the findings from the Carter Center’s commissioned questionnaire. You guys set out to look at levels of support for Russia and opinions about China’s best course of action; That was another one. That was really an interesting one because you gave one set of questions that gave them the option, China steps in as some kind of a mediator. And the other that didn’t give them that option, that was just various ways in which to support or not. And then the third question really was about this disinformation piece. What were the specific questions that you asked respondents, and what was the general distribution of answers?

Yawei: So basically the first question is whether China’s support for Russia is in China’s interest. I think I’m quite surprised by the outcome because before the survey I was thinking, if you are watching both the state and social media news, if you care about where China is today, and if you think about where China is going to go after they are so steadfast in their support of Russia, what is going to happen to China? So I was hoping that at least it probably will be a divided opinion, but it’s largely one-sided.

75% of those that are polled believe that China’s support for Russia is in China’s interest. On the second question, in terms of the best course of action, you mentioned it’s actually a divided question. The first part is we don’t have the option of China playing a role of mediation, so on that, 61% of those that are polled say China should offer moral support. Those who believe that China should provide military support, that percentage is very low.

And then once we introduce the option of China playing mediation role, then 58% of those polled said, China should play a role of mediation. I think the answers to these two questions, at least, tells us that the Chinese, those that are polled, they are clear-eyed about what this support is all about. It’s more about moral support. It will be stupidity for China to get militarily engaged. And of course, they probably don’t know much about how China has been warned by Biden and by the European leaders that if any material support you offer, that can be interpreted as sustaining the war effort, that you’re going to face consequences. So I’m comforted by this finding.

And finally, on the bio lab, the conspiracy theory, if you ask them, have you seen this, those who have seen this, I think 72% believe these accusations are real; That Americans are operating bio labs. COVID-19 probably originated from there. For those who have not read anything about this, as high as 51% of those polled believe that this is true.

Kaiser: Ah, good Christ. For anyone who hasn’t followed this, Chinese state media, and even some Foreign Ministry spokespeople, have pushed this idea that Russian troops in Ukraine discovered supposedly American-funded or even American-operated biological labs, and have suggested that they were actually working on bioweapons. It strikes me that this particular claim out of Moscow was repeated and found resonance in China for one central reason. And that is that Beijing and the Chinese public more broadly, is still really, really resentful over the so-called lab-leak theory of COVID origins and the deliberate conflation of that with bioweapons, and they’re smarting from that. And it feels a little vindictive.

And also, if I were maybe conspiratorially minded about the origins of conspiracy theories, I would even think that maybe this was tailor-made for Chinese consumption. Like if I were in Moscow and I wanted to get Chinese people all riled up against the United States with a conspiracy theory, I would create one about bioweapons labs in Ukraine. Anyway, what did you feel about that? What was your sense about this? And what’s really striking Yawei, is you said that the higher level of education people had, the more apt they seemed to be to believe this disinformation, which seems completely contradictory to what you and me might have suspected beforehand.

Yawei: Yes. I think there seems to be a correlation that the higher the level of the education, the more likely they believe in the conspiracy theories. The more likely they think supporting Russia is in China’s national interest, and also, I think the consumption of both state and social media. So this may be an indication of how social media has been synchronized to the state media outlet. On the conspiracy theory I want to add, I think early on, even right after the SARS outbreak, Chinese IR scholars, particularly the retired senior colonel Dài Xù 戴旭, made the claim that SARS was a biological warfare against China launched by the United States. At the time there are reporters who asked, Can you provide evidence? They said, I have evidence, but I’m not going to share this with you. And more recently, I think other IR scholar think tank researchers claim what happened in Hong Kong is orchestrated by the U.S.

Kaiser: Right.

Yawei: And then what happened in Shanghai is orchestrated by the U.S. And the goal, of course, is to use a pandemic and China’s approach to this to weaken China’s economy. So this, I think from the top, all the way to the elite and then to the people that we have polled, there is this tendency to believe in general that U.S. has this goal. Not only just to contain China, but to make China disintegrate just like what happened to the Soviet Union.

So I think the finding here is consistent with this conspiracy environment. One, you hear the Chinese government foreign ministry spokesperson accuse Americans of instigating the protest in Hong Kong. Anything critical of the government, anything critical of the government policies, they are not from our people because our people are being misled.

Our people being instigated as if Chinese people themselves have no agency at all on these issues.

Kaiser: The standard authoritarian victim narrative going on here. Yeah.

So Danielle, in these surveys, it’s clear that you have some demographic data on them, probably gender, age, education level. It’s also clear you get some sense of their level of exposure to state media, social media, these sources. Is this all just self-reported or do you have other means by which you can gather this demographic stuff?

Danielle: Yeah, that’s a good question. As soon as somebody’s exposed to the survey and decides to click and start to answer the survey, we auto-detect their location.

And we also know what device they’re responding on, their operating system, et cetera. So if they tell us they’re never going to buy an iPhone again, but they’re responding on an iPhone, we would have that information; which was useful during parts of the China-U.S. trade war. We also though then ask them for self-reported information: Age, gender, and then various other demographic information, income, education. And then we can test, it depends what the study is, but we can test their level of exposure to state media; as Yawei talked about in this study, their exposure to certain myths or disinformation.

Kaiser: Ah, but you don’t get stuff like their browser history or anything like that?

Danielle: Oh, not their browser history, but we do have a lot of machine data on what they’re doing, but what we don’t have is anything that personally identifies them. So we can’t go back to the same person again and ask them the same question because of our anonymity.

But we do get quite a bit of machine data and we definitely know where they are. Like are they in Shanghai under lockdown right now? We would know that somebody is answering us from Shanghai.

Kaiser: Danielle staying with you for a bit. Let’s talk about this Military Conflict Risk Index, and especially about the China-Taiwan pairing. First of all, like I said, there are a couple of other studies that I wanted to talk about here, and you had done them for another client and presumably you’re talking about this with his permission. Can you talk a little bit about who that was at Bank of America I believe, right?

Danielle: Sure. Yeah. Actually it’s a suite of data feeds that we’re creating that are available for subscriptions. So we’re doing them together with David Woo. David Woo is a former macro strategist at the Bank of America. And the idea was that geopolitical risk is big right now.

We started putting this together before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but really the idea that there isn’t a lot of good real-time information on what is happening in terms of the major conflicts; China-Taiwan, Russia-Ukraine, Iran-Israel, India-Pakistan. And we wanted to have some real-time intelligence from citizens as an alternative source of information; citizens are closest to the activity on the ground. They are hearing the information from their leaders and they know whether these things are happening, whether they’re required to report for military duty, and so on.

And so the idea was to hear from the broadest array of citizens possible in real-time in both of these conflict zones, in both the countries of the pairing to be able to see, okay, is there an increased risk of escalation in this conflict or are things deescalating? And so while we heard from the Ukrainians and Russians the week before the invasion, yes, things are happening and we’re hearing the same thing. We actually didn’t hear that over the course of March; Ukrainians and Russians thought things were actually going to stay stable. But now we’re seeing since the beginning of April that they are saying things are going to intensify. So it’s an alternative source of information on what’s happening on the ground in these conflicts, basically.

Kaiser: So focusing of course, as we would for this show on the China-Taiwan pairing, it’s a shame that people can’t see right in front of them right now, the graph of the seven day moving average that you did. Maybe with your permission, I could put that in the show notes. That would be great.

Danielle: Sure. Yeah.

Kaiser: But basically, you ask people in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland whether they thought military tensions across the Taiwan Strait would likely increase or decrease in the coming weeks. And they answered on a five-point scale, which you graph from negative two to two. What’s fascinating to me though, and I think probably to anyone looking at this is that they track so closely.

Danielle: Absolutely.

Kaiser: I mean, Taiwan remains consistently above the PRC on this question, but it tracks together. I mean they put the likelihood at a higher level, but it rises and falls with what people answer on the mainland in very, very tight sync. What does that mean? What can we infer from that?

Danielle: Well, first of all, it’s also notable that there is a lot, I think in the public discourse, there’s some concern that there could be an escalation of this conflict. And according to Chinese and Taiwanese citizens, we’re actually seeing that they think the risk of things escalating is actually decreased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and they’re…

Kaiser: And quite, quite substantially. Yeah.

Danielle: Yes. And so I think that’s the first takeaway. And then the second, like you pointed out, is that they’re responding to the same narrative, the same set of narratives that are out there about this conflict. So it looks to me like you’re right, they almost track. When anything happens, you can see that this is happening in parallel. And because we’re doing this every day, repeating the same question every day to a new random cohort, it’s really remarkable how much they’re aligned.

Kaiser: Another question that you asked in the work that you did with David Woo was about the likely impact that the conflict was going to have, and whether that’s more economic in nature or political in nature; that is, will it affect the economy, the relative economic power of the country in question, or will it affect the political system? And I thought it was really interesting too.

Danielle: Yeah, we were trying to ask, What’s at stake in this crisis? And not in the crisis, in this broader geopolitical conflict between Russia and China and their allies; and the U.S., Europe and its allies. And we gave people a range of options and 36% of Chinese, 36% of Russians, and 37% of Americans think that what’s most at stake in this global power struggle is the prospect for economic power for their country. The least selected option was that political systems were at stake. And it’s very interesting also because it’s sort of this new, what some people are calling the new Cold War, it’s really about economics. It’s not the world is just much more tightly integrated now, and it’s a different set of issues.

I mean not completely different, but really, citizens in all these countries recognize that what’s really at stake is the economic success of their countries. And on the one hand, you could find this disconcerting, because economics is not supposed to be a zero-sum game, right. If we’ve learned anything from economic history and theory and so on, it is that we all benefit…

Kaiser: By trading…

Danielle: …Right. But that’s the finding that we get. And I think you said that you didn’t think it was that surprising Kaiser.

Kaiser: No, I don’t think it’s surprising. Partially, I’m glad that this outcome — yes, I am concerned they didn’t learn about the Edgeworth Box in Econ 101 as well as they should have maybe and how all trade is supposed to be mutually beneficial. But what does give me some heart is that they’re not swallowing this narrative that people are pushing in Beijing and in Washington that this is a primarily ideological struggle that this isn’t autocracy versus democracy necessarily.

I mean, if I had to hazard a guess as to why people in China would reject that narrative, is I think a lot of people in China simply don’t believe that China intends, even if it wins this as it were, to push its political system onto anybody. And those who do think that political systems are at stake here are answering that question, maybe defensively, because it doesn’t specify whether it thinks that political change will come to them. It could also be to us. And they do believe that the U.S. wants to foist its political system onto China. Russians probably feel the same way. And Americans; they’re still locked into this idea that economic power automatically brings about systemic political change. And that would be my head of stab at a ten-second theory of it. But anyway, fascinating results.

Yawei, I imagine that many people would be surprised by the results that you have that show this whole higher education being correlated with higher support for Russia. It’s really hard for me still. I know you’ve offered a little bit of an explanation, but why is it so hard for me to shake this long standing belief that China’s educated urbanites are somehow more cosmopolitan and therefore more Western-leaning than the rest of society. Is it time to retire that idea?

Yawei: No, I don’t think it’s time to retire that idea. I think this correlation, the higher level the education, the more likelihood they believe in conspiracy theories or believe that China support for Russia war in Ukraine is in China’s national interest. I think as I tried to explain earlier, there are multiple factors here. Number one of course, is what I said, is the monopoly of both the state and social media by the propaganda apparatus. Number two is, I think this is a true reflection we can take into consideration. Danielle’s talked about the findings of this U.S.-China competition or rivalry is not about ideology. It’s really about containing China. I think I mentioned this in other places, I think there is this October revolution moment in China, the China’s elite. More and more of them start to believe that U.S. now is hostile to China.

What U.S. is trying to do has nothing to do with ideology or human rights or anything like that. It’s more about to paralyze China’s economic growth, to deny China the crown jewel of innovation and technologies. And to make China disintegrate. The ramification of this is going to be serious. If we go back to a hundred years before, when President Woodrow Wilson failed to deliver the Jiaodong Peninsula to China after Germany was defeated. That caused a widespread disillusionment and disappointment in President Woodrow Wilson, in Western liberal democracy. At the same time, Moscow issued the declaration saying they’re going to return all the territory seized from the Qing court to China. So that created a pivot in China. Which was, before they think liberal democracy, just like what Japan was able to do is use Western institutions to strengthen your country. So at that point, they made a sharp turnaround and many like Mo and other founding members of the party to believe that the Soviet way is the best way for China. So this is what I’m concerned most now is U.S. best asset in this competition with China is what you mentioned. The elite positive perception of the U.S. is now going through a sea change. And once…

Kaiser: So here we are in 1919 again, right?

Yawei: Exactly.

Kaiser: The eve of the May 4 movement. And you think that this profound disillusionment that the liberal intelligence, I mean, these guys like Chén Dúxiù 陳獨秀 and Lǐ Dàzhāo 李大釗 were all committed liberals. They were not so enamored with Marxism yet, but this was a pivotal moment.

Yawei: Right.

Kaiser: That’s a profoundly interesting argument.

Yawei: I think one of the popular tweets by Liú Xīn 刘欣, the anchorwoman for CGTN, her tweet is that, “You want us to destroy our friend and then you turn around to destroy us.” I think that’s a reflection of not the majority, but I think a significant portion of the people. Particularly in the international relations communities that they think because U.S. is such that, we have to hedge, we have to have a friend, what if we’re not going to have any friend around while U.S. starts real decoupling with China.

Kaiser: So Yawei and Danielle, I’m not sure who’s best suited to answer this, but where did you find pockets of opposition to the war? Are there demographics, identifiable segments of Chinese society where opposition to the war or a desire for China to stay out of it completely or to even side with NATO and the United States with Ukraine, was that found to be slightly higher? Is there such a place in the demography of China right now?

Yawei: I don’t know if Danielle has a better interpretation of that. I think statistically, if you look at, because the percentage is small, it’s hard to identify, but anecdotally, I think there is this big divide between the popular view; how the public views the war and how international relations scholars see the war. So anecdotally I was told in the international relations scholar community, more than 50%, probably as high as 65% of the scholars, agree with Hu Wei’s view.

So if that’s the case, then that’s a sharp contrast that at the elite level, people seem to have more comprehensive understanding of what China’s support for Russia means. Whereas at the lower level, they don’t seem to be able to have accurate answers to that question, or, how do you calculate cost and decision making?

Kaiser: Yeah, it’s pretty tough. In this study, it was like N equals 4,800 something. This is not a small study, but I’m sure you weren’t able to get so granular that you could say, Ah, this person has a PhD in political science. Danielle, you were going to say?

Danielle: So I was going to say that we asked, In my country, people view the Russia-China relationship… and one thing we observed is that the Chinese were less likely to actually say that it was an allied relationship than the Russians were. I think that’s also an important indicator, which is complimentary perhaps to some of the things that Yawei found in the Carter Center study. Yeah. And we also found that in the U.S.-China relationship, again, it’s not as adversarial as you might think when you ask regular people from across both countries, but young people were more open to the idea of a coexisting relationship rather than a more adversarial one. So that I find a little bit optimistic.

Kaiser: That’s encouraging. I’m curious because your survey results show that more Americans view the U.S. relationship with Russia as one of adversaries or enemies than view the relationship with China as such.

Danielle: Correct. Yeah.

Kaiser: I wonder what that was like before February 24? I wonder if the war has really changed that? Because if you go back, I looked at the Pew Global Attitudes, which is the standard benchmark, and they only have data to 2020. But in 2020, China had a much higher unfavorability score than Russia data among Americans. The terms are not the same of course, but I do think this is significant. Does RIWI have data from before February 24 on this Cold War II thing?

Danielle: Unfortunately, on this particular question, oh, actually, sorry, we might. I might be able to dig some out for you.

Kaiser: That’d be great. I’d love to see that.

Danielle: But I don’t have the answer off the top of my head because we did, when Russia invaded Ukraine, we pivoted and in fact, we were actually going to do a China-U.S. index, and then we pivoted to a Cold War II index.

So I do have some historical data. I don’t have it up off the top of my head, but yeah. I can look that up and give you an answer.

Yawei: I’m very encouraged by the finding of how small the percentage of the Russians and even smaller percentage of the Chinese see the other side as an ally. That’s a great comfort because I was so disappointed that 75% of the Chinese polled, they support China’s position because it’s in China’s interest. And then you look at the finding from RIWI, 28% Chinese see Russia as an ally, 36% Russian see China as an ally. That’s a very small percentage. That’s almost like the same percentage that is saying China’s support for Russia is not in China’s interest. That’s 25%.

So I say this, I’m very encouraged by this. I think the Chinese people, there is a saying that, people have 20/20 vision. They know exactly what this relationship is all about. There is no sentimental, there is no emotional attachment between the Russians and the Chinese. Most of the Chinese know all the bad things czar regime had done to China. Most of the Chinese, the older generation that Danielle referred to, they understood how disastrous when China adopted the Russian economic mode, or when China adopted how the party is going to be supreme. So I think if we look at where Chinese public opinion is by combining these two data set, is I think the Chinese believe that supporting Russia is in the interest of China. Not because they like Russia’s war, not because they like Russia as a country, they like Russian as a people. But because the U.S. is so hostile to China. And in this kind of macro-environment, it’s better to retain Russia as a friend so that you are not going to end up fighting the U.S. alone.

Kaiser: Yawei I think that’s exactly right. And it reminds me of something that Sidney Rittenberg, the late Sidney Rittenberg, said to me a few years ago, we were talking to him at his home, his winter home in Phoenix, Arizona. He said that there’s really no love lost between Chinese people and Russian people. They don’t have a natural affinity. Chinese certainly don’t have a natural affinity to Russians, nor do they have a natural love for the British. But they do have a natural love for Americans. And I’ve always found that to be the case, that there’s so much that unites them. There’s so many things about their personalities, for good and for bad, that are the same. Danielle, I wanted to talk about the last thing before we move on, some of the findings that show a lot of Russian confidence and appear to show strong solidarity within Russia.

There’s this result that shows 80% of Russians believe that their side actually has the upper hand over Ukraine, which oddly might be actually more realistic than the 73% of Americans who are convinced that our side, that Ukraine has the upper hand. I mean, look, Ukraine has had a very impressive showing thus far for sure, but still. You look at the military might of Russians. It’s not over yet. And I worry about the hubris. Anyway, then there’s the 42% of Russian respondents, which is much higher than for China or the United States, that agreed with this idea that they should support their country even if they think it is wrong. Which I thought was an interesting question to ask.

Danielle: 48% of Russians believe that people should support their country, even if their country’s actions and policies are in the wrong.

Kaiser: Oh my God, it’s gone up six points! 48%. That’s shocking. That actually reminds me of years ago, my band was in a contract negotiation and I was the dissenting voice. I said, No, we’re going to ruin this deal. Why should we? And one of my bandmates said something like, If we’re all going to be, well there’s a vulgar phrase that can, where the noun is, can be the most awesome and like a stupid ass. I said, If we’re all going to be awesome, let’s be awesome together. If we’re all going to be dumb asses, let’s be dumb asses together. I said, Actually, could I say, I don’t want to be a dumb ass with you guys? And I got practically kicked out for saying that, but yeah, I’m glad that the number is much smaller for China.

Danielle: Yeah. And the thing that we’re going to be doing is tracking these questions. We continue to ask them on a daily basis to understand whether, is this going to change? Are the Russians at some point going to not believe that they have the upper hand? So what is actually shocking to I think probably most Americans, that 80% of Russians think they have the upper hand given the media narrative that Russia’s really struggling.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah. I worry about that media narrative though. I really do. I worry. It’s impressively powerful, certainly. The discursive power of the Western media has been on ample display throughout this whole thing. And certainly, Zelenskyy has been heroic. A lot of stuff it’s been pretty great.


Kaiser: All right. Final thoughts anybody, before we move on? What’s next? Yawei, do you have more research planned? I’m really curious. Not just for scheduling a show for the next time I have you on.

Yawei: Our plan with RIWI is we’re going to start this regularized poll of Chinese perception of U.S.-China relations and how they see their image internationally. Last November, when we talked about it, it’s a pilot. We only ask two questions. So it’s going to be a more comprehensive one. We’ll do one later this year and then probably another one early next year so that we’ll have more data; more questions will be asked. I think now we’re just drafting the questionnaire. There are 13 questions, addition to the gender, income, location data. We probably will launch this wave later in the summer or in the early fall. So we’re working with RIWI and other sponsors, including Committee of 100 and Oxford University China Center that we’re going to do this. Sorry. And we want to regularize it. So that just like Danielle’s constant, this index, right. You have tried to catch if there are any changes and how to interpret these changes over time.

Kaiser: I’m delighted to hear that. I’m really, really keen to see the results start rolling out from that. Oh fantastic.

Danielle: Yeah, I’ll also add that in addition to the work that Yawei and the Carter Center are going to do with RIWI that on these regularized opinion polls of China-U.S. perceptions. So we’re also continuing to gather data on the two other indexes I talked about; one is this Cold War II index in Russia, China, and the U.S. perceptions of each other, but also includes real-time economic data.

So for example, we know that in China, first-quarter GDP came out, very positive looking, but it’s kind of a rearview mirror when you have Omicron and all these lockdowns and so on. So we’re trying to capture in real time what does consumer spending look like. And we’ve got that data now for April, and we’re trying to capture inflation, all kinds of data that are related to basic economic conditions in China, also in Russia and the U.S. as well simultaneously. We also have this continuing gathering of data in these conflicts, the conflict between China-Taiwan in particular might be interesting to your listeners.

Kaiser: Yeah, the economic data in China too, obviously that’s fascinating stuff. So let’s stay in touch on that. Fantastic.

Danielle Goldfarb. Yawei Liu. Thank you so much to both of you and sorry to take up so much time on the weekend evening. I’m sure you have better things to do, but I look forward to having both of you back on the program together or separately, but either way, for sure. Before I let you go, let’s do some recommendations. But first, a quick reminder that if you like the work that we do with the Sinica podcast, please help us out by subscribing to SupChina’s China Access, our daily newsletter. Honestly, I just think it’s the best one out there in English and you’ll find it highly readable, super informative. Just go to supchina.com/subscribe. All right. Let’s move on to recommendations. Yawei, will you go first? What do you have for us?

Yawei: I have this book to recommend, I don’t know if it was recommended before by your other guests. So this is a book by Luke Patey called How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions. I like this book because actually I’m teaching a Chinese foreign policy class. I asked my students to use this as one of the two textbooks. The other is China’s Wolf Warriors by the Bloomberg reporter that you talked to before.

Kaiser: Right. Peter Martin, right.

Yawei: I like this book because I think his conclusion is, the world cannot afford to see China lose. If China loses, if China goes back to what it was before, in the initial 30 years after the funding of PRC or if China shut down again or if China becomes what we don’t want to see, then it’s not just miserable for China, it’s going to be disaster for the whole world. But then at the same time, he makes the argument that where China is going now certainly is a threat to the international order to the rule-based environment that all countries should hold China accountable and not to be coerced by China’s economic and other sanctions. So what he’s saying is let’s not try to make regime change, but try to push or persuade or convince China there is a better way for you to have your domestic as well as your foreign policies. So that’s why I recommend this book.

Kaiser: Yeah. I read Luke’s piece or excerpt I think it was from the book in The Wire China, and I had the pleasure of reading it out loud when we were working with them on the China Stories podcast. So I think he’s a fantastic writer. I’m looking forward to reading it. Great recommendation. Thanks Yawei. Luke Patey, How China Loses.

Okay, Danielle, what do you have for us?

Danielle: So I’m going to recommend a book called Invisible Women, came out a couple years ago.

Kaiser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Danielle: Have you read it?

Kaiser: No, no, no.

Danielle: Okay. It’s by Caroline Criado-Perez. I’m really fixated on this question of, there’s a big emphasis on big data and machine learning to extract the best from big data and less of an emphasis on making sure that the data that’s underlying, that’s going into the models is actually reflecting reality. And therefore what’s coming out is going to give us better information and better decisions. And what I really like about her book and I recommend it to everybody. So far whenever I speak about it in a room, all the women put their hands up that they’ve read it. And I want to encourage not just women to read it, everybody to read it because really it actually shocked me about the fact that many of these algorithms are based on data that does not include women.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Danielle: And yet, everything from which sidewalks do we shovel first because of women’s transportation patterns to the way that airbags are designed and so on. And so it just was shocking and eyeopening to me as somebody who spends her time thinking about data and data bias and inclusive data and so on. And so I wanted to encourage other people to read it. Cause I really enjoyed it.

Kaiser: Invisible Women by, you said Caroline Criado-Perez, is that right?

Danielle: Yes, exactly.

Kaiser: Okay, fantastic. Thanks. And I will, I will read.

Danielle: Good.

Kaiser: I try to make a point to reading everything that gets recommended. I’m still making my way slowly through it all, but I try, I try my best. So I would like to recommend the book Tokyo Vice. I started it right after I talked to my colleague Chang who had recommended it on this show. He had recommended the TV show, the HBO Max series of the same name. The book is the memoir of this remarkable guy named Jake Adelstein, who grew up in Columbia, Missouri. He’s actually like a high school classmate or something of Peter Hessler. He for many years was a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter writing in Japanese covering metropolitan crime and really going after the Yakuza, which is just astonishing.

It’s a riveting book. It’s a great story. He actually does a, not just a fine job of retelling, capturing all the detail and stuff, but it’s actually just the right level of self-effacing that it’s not just braggadocio from beginning to end. It’s quite good. You should actually go back and read the New Yorker piece that was written about him by Pete Hessler back in, I think it was like 2012.

The guy they got to play him on the HBO Max series is, I don’t know if you’ve seen Ansel Elgort who, for my money he’s the most handsome guy in the world. He played Tony in the new Spielberg West Side Story. He’s really, really just physically, just magnetic. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be played by this guy? Huge differences though between the HBO version of Jake and the physical Jake that’s described in Pete’s story, it’s pretty funny. But the HBO version of the story, it’s different for sure. They do a lot to make it work as a TV show, but it doesn’t feel fundamentally dishonest. So I would second my colleague’s recommendation of the show as well. It’s quite good.

Yawei: So read the book or watch the… I started watching the…

Kaiser: Read the book.

Yawei: …The series, the HBO series. I watched two episodes.

Kaiser: The book’s good.

Yawei: The book is better?

Kaiser: Yeah. Well, I tend to like books better, but no, I mean, they’re both fun. It’s kind of fun to compare and contrast too, because it’s not the same story exactly. I mean, they are details like the exam, for example, that’s a detail that’s kept in there pretty faithfully, including the part about him forgetting or not recognizing it, that there was a double-sided piece of paper and that there were a bunch of exam questions on the other side. All these details are left in, but there’s lots that isn’t. A lot of the characters in the book, you can see who they were supposed to be, they’re conflations of a bunch of different people from the book.

Yawei: Okay.

Kaiser: And they make it into the movie, but in really good ways and things that will go tragically, horrifyingly, bad, if they stay faithful to it. But it’s really good. Really good.

Kaiser: Anyway, thank you so much, Danielle and Yawei. It was what a pleasure to talk to you both on a Friday night.

Yawei: Thank you.

Danielle: Thank you.

Yawei: Thank you. Have a good weekend.

Kaiser: All right.

Yawei: Have a great weekend.

Kaiser: You too.

Kaiser: The Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com or just give us a rating and a review on Apple podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @SupChinaNews and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica network. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next week. Take care.