Parul Trivedi, Research Intern, ICS

The relationship between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains the most enduring brothers- in arms relationship which was forged during the Korean War in 1950 and solidified with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in 1961. During the heydays of the cold war both Chinese and North Korean leaders described their relationship as ‘lip and teeth’ on the account of shared mutual interests and common ideology.

With the end of the cold war era in 1990s, three differences emerged between the two allies. First, China wanted North Korea to open up its economy but North Korea was reluctant to adopt such measures fearing regime collapse. Second, sticky issue was Beijing’s growing relations with South Korea which made Pyongyang uneasy. The third issue was the Beijing’s concern about North Korean nuclear Programme. Despite numerous differences between the two, it had been observed that Beijing has endeavored to maintain its traditional ties with DPRK as North Korea serves as a buffer state for China as well as PRC is desirous of maintaining stability in the Korean peninsula.


Beijing’s foreign policy towards its North East Asian neighbors includes five no’s: no instability, no collapse, no nukes, no refugees and no conflict escalation. Before Xi Jingping assumed power China had a clear stance over the North Korea’s nuclear issue that it preferred stability over denuclearization and thus Beijing has not been forthcoming in implementation of sanctions. However, under Xi, Beijing supported UNSC resolution against DPRK in 2013 and began implementing international sanctions on North Korea which in North Korea’s views, such Chinese actions was a betrayal to their traditional ties. Xi by choosing to travel to South Korea in July 2014 before visiting North Korea, broke the tradition reflecting a preference for Beijing’s relations with Seoul over Pyongyang.  The relationship between the two countries deteriorated further in 2016 with North Korea which began with its testing missile frequently. China had raised its voice on multiple occasions. For instance: According to U.S. media report: “China can no longer stand the continuous escalation of the North Korean nuclear issue at its doorstep” Another statement made by the official media of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) cautioned North Korea to ‘avoid making mistakes  and warned’, if North Korea makes another provocative move, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UNSC to adopt severe restrictive measures that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil imports to North Korea. Notwithstanding the fear that excessive pressure on North Korea could lead to regime collapse, in 2017, following Pyongyang’s continued testing ballistic missiles, Beijing not only supported UN backed sanctions but also implemented them earnestly. It is to be noted that:

In response to Chinese actions, North Korea upped the ante both in rhetoric and in action. In a response to commentaries in Chinese state media calling for more sanctions, the Korean Central News Agency warned PRC by reinstating that: ‘China had to better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK- PRC relations’. It was also added that the ‘DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China’ In fact, North Korean act of testing its 6th nuclear weapon hours before the BRICS Summit hosted by China in September 2017 was an act clearly to embarrass Beijing diplomatically to convey Pyongyang’s displeasure of Chinese support for sanctions.

REPAIRING THE TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP (2018-2022) Beijing’s approach of supporting international sanctions meant to convey the message to Pyongyang that undermining China’s interest would not be tolerated and will have its consequences and push North Korea to choose the path of diplomacy. However, when North Korea shifted its approach from confrontation to diplomacy towards United States in 2018, Beijing was concerned that Pyongyang was drifting away from China as well as its influence on Pyongyang was on decline and it appeared that its interests were threatened.

In an effort to reassert its influence in the changing Korean peninsula dynamics that was fast evolving, Beijing doubled down on its efforts to patch up things with Pyongyang. China hurriedly organized the first Kim- Xi Summit on April 14, 2018, ahead of inter- Korean and the US-DPRK Summit. The two leaders met four times over the span of one year. The last meeting was held in June 2019, during President Xi’s first state visit to North Korea. The last Chinese leader to visit Pyongyang was Hu Jintao in 2005. President Xi’s visit to North Korea was significant as it came following the failure of the second Summit between Kim and Trump in February 2019.

Since, the first Xi-Kim meeting, Chinese narrative of the bilateral relations began emphasizing the value of their traditional alliance relationship and filled with deep appreciation for warm comradeship in championing the socialist cause. President Xi promised to promote a ‘ long term, sound and stable’ relationship with North Korea and Korean leader Kim Jong Un also sent a message to Xi stating that “invincible friendship will be immortal on the road of accomplishing the cause of socialism as two countries marked the 70 years of their diplomatic relations”.

Since, the diplomatic rapprochement in 2018, Beijing once again began assuming the big brother role and started investing further in restoring its alliance with Pyongyang. On the occasion of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the alliance in July 2021, the two countries renewed the Treaty for another 20 years as they had done before in 1981 and 2001. The growing diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries have also given impetus to restore the traditional party to party ties and furthermore, Beijing promised its support to the Korean Workers Party on its pursuit to a socialist economy. Since, 2018 China has been voicing its support for North Korea in the UN and argued for relaxing sanctions. For instance:  Recently, China stepped up to cover North Korea in the UN by blocking the US bid to impose sanctions for its testing of cruise and hypersonic missiles in January 2022.

In conclusion, it can be inferred that under Xi Jingping China is desirous of enlarging its area of influence in the whole of North East Asian region with an increase in the Sino-US strategic power rivalry. Although China is much wary about North Korea’s nuclearization, but within the given context of growing Sino-US strategic rivalry China might have another calculation towards North Korea’s nuclear program as it would require a nuclear North Korea to restraint the growing US military presence in the Korean peninsula. Therefore, under Xi Jingping’s leadership China has been making efforts to achieve stability in the Korean peninsula by increasing its area of influence over the peninsula as it is geostrategically an outpost for consolidating power in the whole of North East Asian region. However, In near future, it is yet to be observed that whether Beijing’s blossoming relationship with Pyongyang with utmost patience and grudging tolerance for its nuclear programs will still continue if DPRK’S expanding missile programs begins to affect China’s regional and strategic interests in the region.

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Priyanka Pandit, Ashoka-HYI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies Shiv Nadar University, India. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

‘Ascension’ is more about “Common Poverty” in Xi’s China…

Hemant Adlakha, Vice Chairperson, ICS and Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last June, where it won Best Documentary Feature, the American indie documentary Ascension (登楼叹 Dēnglóu tàn) was released in cinemas and on MTV this year on January 14. A surprise contender for the best Oscar documentary this year, the film explores the serious theme of class and labour in today’s China. Losing out to the likes of Questlove’s Summer of Soul for the best Academy Award documentary prize did not disappoint its Chinese-American director Jessica Kingdon, who was herself surprised to see the film in contention for the coveted award. “This isn’t the kind of film that would go to the Oscars or something,” she said in an interview recently.

Chinese-American filmmaker Jessica Kingdon

But the film is already on an award winning spree. Besides Tribeca best documentary feature award, it has won a 98% “fresh rating” on the prestigious and the world’s leading aggregator of movie and TV show reviews from critics – Rotten Tomatoes. Moreover, Ascension has been getting rave reviews from film critics across the globe. In London, the Financial Times film critic wrote: “Ascension – eye-popping portrait of China’s production and consumption.” Patrick McDonald of observed: “A fresh view of modern China, stripping away the mystery of their culture in an effort to survive. Jessica Kingdon creates a work of art & cinema that defines Chinese dreams.” In India, the online newspaper applauded: “The meaning of the word ‘Orwellian’ may be overused and overstretched nowadays, but it’s really the most fitting descriptor for Jessica Kingdon’s absurdist portrait of contemporary China as the world’s factory.”

Some critics described the film as politically charged and ascribed its observant director as declaring socialist China’s “descent into capitalist excess” as bizarre. To some other critics, the debutant director’s docu feature powerfully shows the sharpening of the contradiction between class and labour in reform-era China. In her own words, Kingdon was quite candid in admitting that before arriving in China in 2019 to shoot her film, she wasn’t aware how much “the world’s factory” had transformed into a highly consumerist society. After the completion of the film which took Kingdon and her film crew to more than fifty locations across China, the New York born filmmaker couldn’t hide her surprise discovery about China and said: “China is definitely a kind of mirror for America.” 

Typically, as third or fourth generation Chinese born and brought up overseas, Kingdon had very little or no connection with her roots as she grew up. However, she chose the title of her movie from a poem written in the first year of Republican China in 1912 by her great-grandfather. Zheng Zi, her great-grandfather was a poet of established reputation in Hunan – the central Chinese province which was also the birthplace of Mao Zedong. Kingdon’s grandparents had migrated to America in 1949 following the defeat of the Kuomintang in China’s Civil War. On being asked why she chose China as the subject for her debut movie, Kingdon was a bit nostalgic in her reply: “Filming in China was partly a way to untangle my relationship with the country of my roots. At the same time, I had this fascination and curiosity about my cultural heritage…moreover, everyone [in the US] was talking about China as this new global superpower.”

MTV Documentary Films

The movie – according to the introductory brochure – is observational and essayistic and is an attempt to examine three things in “capitalist” China, i.e. the factory, the worker and the wealthy. In Kingdon’s own words, the aim of Ascension is to draw – and not influence – the viewers’ attention to the universal aspects of industrial creation and consumption, and pose questions about who benefits from these industrial enterprises. That is the reason why we decided to keep the movie free of dialogue, narrative or a   narrator, Kingdon emphasized. She further contended, “In any nation, be it America or elsewhere, the benefits are rarely apparent at the bottom of the chain.” This explains why a critic declared that the film “slyly observes China’s transition from the world’s factory to a massive consumer society.”   

Finally, Kingdon claims Ascension is less about focusing on labour disputes and is more about exploring the allure of the “Chinese dream” and the faith people are willing to place in it. Yet, perhaps unintentionally, thanks to the film’s spectacular images it does effectively come across to viewers as “a wake-up call” essentially conveying that not everyone is going to end up on top. “The film isn’t saying that resistance to power doesn’t exist, but in this film, I was just leaning into that quest for upward mobility,” the filmmaker told an interviewer. Also, the film inadvertently reflects upon the generations of Chinese struggling to figure out – trapped between contradictions of socialist ideals and capitalist greed – how they matter to themselves and to the society around them.

Asia Society at the Movies: A conversation on Ascension

In its official description, Ascension is introduced as saying “The film ascends through the levels of the capitalist structure: the factory production, to aspirational consumers, and the elites revelling to a new level of hedonistic enjoyment.” True, the description may not be exclusive or specific to China. And additionally, though the film is not yet available on the Chinese internet or in theatres, the producers are hopeful Ascension will eventually reach Chinese audiences. As one private viewer in China reacted after watching the film: “Anyone intelligent would know after watching Ascension that ‘Chinese dream’ is the ‘dream’ the Chinese Communist Party ruled ‘socialism’ promises. In reality, there is no dream and there is no socialism.”Or as a film critic recently observed, “In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, the filmmaker shows that the contemporary ‘Chinese Dream’ … ‘remains an elusive fantasy for most’.”