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China's President Xi Jinping walks past honour guards during a welcoming ceremony at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on March 20.ANATOLIY ZHDANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Bruised by battles with the United States over technology and international influence, the Chinese people are finding themselves drawn to another major nuclear power: Russia.

The relationship between Russia and China has been defined by the seeming personal friendship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The two men meet regularly, and are photographed clinking glasses and even making food together – Russian blini pancakes, washed down with vodka. In 2022, the two countries declared a partnership with “no limits.” Weeks later, Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, and he has since become even more dependent on China as a market for Russian oil and natural gas.

But the machinations of war and geopolitics have also taken on a surprisingly personal dimension in China, where the public has developed an affinity for Russia, according to the results of an opinion survey project conducted by the University of Alberta’s China Institute.

The survey, which gathered responses from throughout China, is an unusual glimpse into Chinese perceptions of the world. Respondents were asked questions about their views toward Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Britain and the U.S.

Their responses suggest views toward Canada have stayed largely warm, even as perceptions of the U.S. have dimmed. Canada remains a desirable place for study (although it is outranked by the U.S. and Britain, with their name-brand universities) and the number-two destination for emigration.

The number-one emigration destination for survey respondents, however, was Russia, despite the fact that many more Chinese people speak English than Russian. In perceptions of global influence, Russia was only slightly behind the U.S., beating out all others, including the EU.

Russia was ranked the most trustworthy global partner, with an average survey score of 5.4 out of seven, compared to just 2.6 for Japan and the U.S., and 3.8 for Canada, the EU, India and Britain.

Respondents said Russia was the country with the most long-term importance to China, that it was number 1 among the surveyed countries in the handling of COVID-19, and that it was first among nations with which China should expand economic co-operation and technological collaboration.

Public opinion in China has long been difficult to measure. Individual views are shaped by state media, and skepticism of anonymity in polls is so widespread that considerable numbers of respondents may deliberately answer in ways that align with the government narrative of the day, said Jia Wang, interim director of the China Institute.

That narrative continues to favour closer ties with Russia. On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin met Mr. Xi in Beijing, and the two countries signed a series of new agreements to co-operate on services, sports, patents and Russian agricultural exports.

Mr. Xi said it is “the aspiration of the people and the trend of the times to consolidate and develop China-Russia relations,” according to paraphrased comments reported by Chinese state media.

The survey, which collected 2,009 responses by telephone and on the internet, indicates domestic backing for Beijing as it grows closer to Moscow.

If China’s leaders “see strong public sentiment that is pro-Russia and against the U.S., that definitely helps to strengthen their position and make them more forceful when they promote certain ideas,” Ms. Wang said.

The remarkable tilt toward Russia shown by the survey, she said, has practical grounding. Visas for travel to Russia can be easier to come by for Chinese citizens than visas for many Western countries, and the weak ruble offers buying power to those with yuan.

But the shift in opinion also suggests a kind of public “protest vote,” Ms. Wang said.

“Russia is a country that is standing up against the U.S. and against the West, and in China many people feel that China is under attack from the U.S.-led West,” she said.

“From a strategic geopolitical standpoint, people want to see Russia at least remain as a power.”