In Moscow, Li Hui met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. © Imago
For almost two weeks, China's special envoy Li Hui was on a "peacekeeping mission" in Europe. According to a media report, he made demands that are hardly acceptable in Ukraine.
Munich/Beijing – At the end of his "peace mission", the Chinese special envoy Li Hui was once again given the big train station. In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov received the 70-year-old and praised "China's sincere desire and practical efforts to promote a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian crisis." According to him, Russia "believes that China's principled position is conducive to a peaceful resolution of the crisis."
Words that people like to hear in Beijing – where they have been trying for months to present themselves as an honest broker in the Ukraine war. Li's trip sends an "important signal" that governments in Europe "accept China's crucial role in promoting peace talks," the state-run Global Times quoted a Chinese Russia expert as saying immediately after Li's visit to Moscow.
What the propaganda paper elegantly concealed: Before Li flew to Russia, he was by no means received with the same honors in Berlin, Warsaw, Paris and Brussels as in Moscow. Instead of ministers, it was usually only state secretaries who sat down to meet with the guest from Beijing. Only in Kyiv, right at the beginning of his almost two-week trip, was Li personally welcomed by President Volodymyr Zelensky.
China and the Ukraine war: Breaking taboos from Beijing?
In Ukraine, Li apparently had to realize quite quickly that the war could not be ended with a few well-intentioned conversations. "There is no panacea for resolving the crisis," Li said in Kyiv, where he also met with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. He told China's special envoy that his country would not accept any proposals "involving the loss of its territories or a freeze on the conflict." A position that Kiev has repeatedly emphasized since the beginning of the Russian invasion – and which Beijing has long since taken note of.
In this respect, what the Wall Street Journal had to report a few days ago was surprising. Citing Western government officials, the U.S. newspaper wrote that Li had urged U.S. European allies to push for an immediate ceasefire — and to cede to Russia those Ukrainian territories the country currently occupies. Russia's state news agency Tass also quoted from the report, but without confirming or rejecting its content.
Li Hui's demand would be a breach of taboo, because so far the government in Beijing has repeatedly emphasized the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both parties to the conflict, but without defining more precisely what this means in concrete terms. In any case, there has never been any talk of Ukraine ceding parts of its territory to Moscow. However, it is not yet clear whether Li Hui actually made such demands during his trip to Europe.
China continues to side with Russia in the Ukraine war
In any case, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba rejected the Wall Street Journal report in a video message distributed on Facebook. After the publication of the text, he spoke on the phone with those of his European counterparts who had met Li Hui in the days before. These had confirmed to him that there were no negotiations on ceding territory to Russia, Kuleba said. "I urge you to keep a cool head and common sense, not to be deceived and to react emotionally to any publication," Kuleba warned in the video, according to the online magazine The New Voice of Ukraine.
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Asked about the WSJ report, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said on Monday only that it had "taken note" of Kuleba's reaction. A spokeswoman left the article uncommented. The propaganda mouthpiece Global Times became more explicit, accusing the Wall Street Journal of "spreading disinformation about China under the influence of Washington in connection with the Ukrainian crisis." Beijing is taking a neutral position in the Ukraine conflict, according to the paper. A twelve-point peace plan presented by China in February sounded similar.
However, one hardly wants to believe such assurances – not only because of Li Hui's half-hearted European mission. Just last week, Prime Minister Li Qiang received his Russian counterpart Mikhail Mishustin in Beijing, who is subject to sanctions imposed by the US and the EU. And even state and party leader Xi Jinping found time for a meeting with Mishustin. China is ready to continue to support those "core interests it shares with Russia," Xi said at the meeting, according to state media, saying the two countries should cooperate even more closely economically. Xi, on the other hand, did not demand that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine.