Many pro-Russian remarks appeared on China’s social media platforms within hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, characterising the conflict as a comedy or an opportunity to “chigua” ( a slang term for rubbernecking or watching a disaster from afar). Such remarks have once again led the world to assume that the Chinese people are inextricably linked to their government, contributing to bad opinions of China among countries opposed to the war. The Chinese individuals who penned such sentiments contrast sharply with the Russians who demonstrated in Moscow on the night of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to denounce the conflict.
Why are some Chinese citizens so upbeat in the face of the conflict?
To begin with, Chinese citizens lack access to impartial news and information. The predominance of official narratives in China’s media environment, along with the pervasiveness of nationalism, shapes Chinese perceptions of the world. China’s official coverage of the situation has been tilted toward Russia since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The Chinese government has avoided using the word “invasion” to characterize Russia’s activities, and Chinese state media have frequently claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was motivated by US pressure and NATO expansion. It has also depicted China as being in a similar situation to Russia, particularly as a target of the USA’s coercion.
The Chinese and international media have a tendency to report on the crisis with quite different narratives and stories. For example, the Ukrainian news agency OBOZREVATEL claimed that four Chinese students were killed in the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv. Chinese media refuted this claim. Furthermore, the Russian news agency Sputnik said that 323 Chinese people were being held by Ukrainian nationalists, an allegation that Chinese officials have yet to corroborate or report on.
Chinese students trapped in Ukraine who requested assistance on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) have had their tweets deleted. At the same time, the Chinese government has announced that it is chartering flights to assist Chinese students and citizens in returning to China. Most Chinese people’s perceptions of the war are largely shaped by what the Chinese government wants them to perceive.
Social media commentary in China is strictly regulated. Unfavorable comments on the government are kept secret from the general public. Nationalism and violent, “wolf warrior” motifs abound in the remaining entries.
The Chinese government has a large “water army” that tries to influence the populace. They are active not just on domestic social media platforms, but also on major international ones. In truth, China isn’t the only country with a large online critic base. According to a report in The Telegraph, 30 nations around the world employ “troll factories,” or internet armies. Their governments employ commentators to sway public opinion and silence critics.
It’s impossible to tell if the online water army is posting pro-Russian remarks or jokes about the conflict on Chinese social media, or if they reflect the true feelings of the Chinese people. Because one-sided media remarks are regularly seen and recalled, some members of the Chinese public have gradually grown to agree with the viewpoints conveyed by these comments. The “wolf warrior” image has influenced people’s perceptions of the conflict, although it’s difficult to tell who the “war wolves” on Chinese social media are: the Chinese government or the Chinese people.
In truth, Chinese citizens’ viewpoints are not as polarised as the Chinese government’s. Public opinion on the situation in Ukraine is split between those who enthusiastically support the government’s position and others who believe Putin is a Hitler-like figure whom they refer to as “Putler.” The second group of Chinese feels that the conflict is unquestionably a tragedy and that in the contemporary world, it is a terrible thing for a sovereign state to violate another sovereign state.
These social media tales are significant; they will have an influence on people’s lives in the real world.
China and Ukraine had an excellent connection before the Russian invasion. China recognized Ukraine one year after it broke from the former Soviet Union. In 1992, China and Ukraine established official diplomatic ties. China-Ukraine ties have been reasonably straightforward, especially since Ukraine’s accession to the World Commerce Organization (WTO) in 2008, with trade centered on the import and export of raw materials and a variety of civil and military equipment. Since China announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Ukraine has been a potential partner. The Chinese government has also shown that Ukraine would be included in the BRI as a partner nation.
Not only will relations between China and Ukraine remain tense in the future, but Sino-Russian relations will become much more problematic as Russia pursues its invasion. The Chinese leadership appears to be taking steps to distance itself from Russia’s incursion. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged support for a de-escalation of the crisis in a conversation with the US on March 2, indicating that talks between Russia and Ukraine were forthcoming. He voiced the hope that NATO, the United States, and the European Union will take part in peace talks. Meanwhile, new directions to avoid both “pro-Russia” and “pro-Ukraine” articles may be slowly changing the official media narrative.
The most pressing requirement of the day is a ceasefire in Ukraine. War is and always has been a terrible thing. Chinese authorities need to rethink their stand.