Our recent study -as part of the FU Berlin’s SCRIPT Excellence Cluster - “Reinterpreting the alternative script? War in Ukraine, state-sponsored narratives of block building in authoritarian countries and their public perception” investigates how China and Russia use strategic narratives in state-run mass media to justify their authoritarian bloc building initiatives. We conducted critical discourse analysis and computational text analysis on bloc building related news articles from major state media outlets in both countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Our study found that China and Russia employed similar negative rhetoric about Western democracies, portraying them as dysfunctional and warmongering. Both countries blamed the US and NATO for causing the war in Ukraine as part of a broader strategy to maintain Western hegemony. This suggests that shared threats from the democratic bloc have led China and Russia to coordinate their anti-Western narratives.
However, our study also revealed key differences between the two countries' narratives about their own authoritarian bloc building efforts. While both aim to establish a multi-polar order not dominated by the West, Russia promotes its regional institutions like the Eurasian Economic Union as a 'fortress' for non-Western states. In contrast, China advocates global integration and portrays its blocs as 'bridges' between all countries.
China welcomes European participation to boost the EU's strategic autonomy from the US. But Russia treats the EU and US as a unified adversary. Regarding Ukraine, China stresses respect for sovereignty while Russia cites authoritarian allies' overall support (indirectly for its military operations).
Overall, the situational differences between an isolated Russia and a globally engaged China have drove divergent bloc building narratives, despite their shared rivalry with Western democracies. Our study challenges the view that common threats inevitably unite authoritarian bloc even only at rhetorical level. It highlights how China is strategically keeping its options open, neither fully siding with Russia nor the West.
Our research underscores the necessity of analyzing the internal and external narratives propagated by authoritarian regimes to achieve a more nuanced understanding of their diplomatic assertions and geopolitical decisions. While the challenges of conducting fieldwork in such settings have grown, making it difficult for international scholars to grasp the evolving dynamics of authoritarian states, a thorough examination of their domestic media can still offer crucial insights into the underlying signals and intentions behind their public statements.
Ma Ming is a Postdoctoral researcher at Free University Berlin. His research focuses on political communication and authoritarian politics with a regional focus on China, . His work appeared on China Review, China Perspectives and Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs.