On October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrated his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’ve spent the last few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world.
This one is particularly depressing. Apparently it’s time to add a new wing to the Putin fan gallery. A huge wing. For, as it turns out, Vladimir Putin is a superstar in China.
While people in other countries have cooled on Vlad since he sent troops into Ukraine, in China his numbers have soared. A biography of him was a bestseller last fall. After Russia annexed Crimea, his approval rating hit 92%. A 2014 article in a Chinese publication referred to “Putin fever.”
The Wall Street Journal‘s Jeremy Page provided the context in an article that appeared last October: in recent years, he noted, the governments of China and Russia have grown closer, united by their contempt for democracy in general – as represented by pro-freedom protests in Hong Kong and Kiev – and for the U.S. in particular, which is seen as instigating such protests.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has said that the two countries have the world’s “best great-power relationship.” In September, Putin said: “Russian-Chinese ties have reached probably their highest level in history and continue to develop.” Last year, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian that Xi and other Chinese leaders, who “grew up under Chairman Mao,” look up to Putin because they love “the idea of another non-western leader standing up to the capitalist and imperialist west.”
Indeed, Mao may be history and China may have become a top-flight capitalist power, but the PRC’s government remains firmly Communist – and its people are still taught from infancy to respect, and even fear, authority. While Putin, as Page notes, has “overseen a gradual rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin,” Xi has done much the same for the memory of Mao. Even though millions of Chinese citizens unquestionably crave democracy, long for greater freedom, and are active in reform movements, millions more, like generations of their ancestors before them, reflexively esteem tyrants. Or, as they might prefer to put it, they admire leaders who have power and aren’t afraid to use it boldly to benefit their own countries.
Uninspired by Obama, they’re galvanized by Putin. They’re impressed by his bullying moves against Georgia and Ukraine. As one Chinese journalist has said, they’re attracted by Putin’s “strong ’emperor’ quality.” They view him as “a leader with character” who “strikes back when the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is invaded.” To quote a commenter at an online Chinese forum: “Chinese people approve of Putin for the same reasons that they reminisce about Chairman Mao.”
Since Page’s article appeared, the Chinese enthusiasm for Putin has only intensified. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that China’s “adulation” of the Russian president had “reached dizzying new heights” thanks to “a slick propaganda video lavishing praise” on him. The video includes comments by Chinese people praising Putin for his “very big muscles” and calling him “a big handsome man!” How can freedom compete with that?