Backlash in China over Russian invasion of Ukraine, Can leadership ignore ?

Beijing has faced a domestic backlash over Russia’s brutal bombardment on Ukraine which is in sharp contrast to the global perception about people of China. There are very few reports available on the internet about the public response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine . The Russian invasion of Ukraine has evoked strong reactions from Chinese as well . Even as the civilian death toll mounts and nearly 4 million people have fled Ukraine, the war has created a moral dilemma for countries like China that have refused to condemn Moscow.

When Russia began invading Ukraine on February 24, several pro-Russian remarks appeared on China’s social media platforms which created a certain perception about the people of China. Such remarks 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 reality is that  Chinese citizens do not have access to impartial news and information. The Chinese media has reported official narratives which was supportive of Russia. The Chinese government has purposely 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 media has a tendency to report on the crisis with quite different narratives and stories. When news came about the killing of four Chinese students in the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv. Chinese media quickly refuted this claim. 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.

The tweets on trapped Chinese students in Ukraine seeking help were deleted. During the same time, the Chinese government  made an announcement about making arrangements for bringing Chinese students and citizens back to China. Most Chinese people’s perceptions of the war have been largelyshaped by what the Chinese government wants them to perceive.

Like traditional media, social media in China is strictly regulated. Anti-government comments are not allowed to reach the general public thereby giving an impression that people support the government on all the issues. So the Chinese media does not reflect the true feelings of the Chinese people.

It won’t be wrong to say that Chinese citizens’ viewpoints are not as polarised as that of the  Chinese government. Public opinion on the situation in Ukraine is divided between those who enthusiastically support the government’s position and others who believe Russia has taken things too far. Available reports suggest that a section of the Chinese society feels that it was wrong to violate rights of a sovereign state  by another sovereign state.

These social media stories are significant. They clearly indicate what people of China think about Ukraine crisis. Available reports suggested that Beijing’s self-proclaimed neutrality has been criticised by Chinese citizens and international affairs experts alike. These people have spoken out against the slaughtering of civilians. The government has suppressed online criticism of Russia’s aggression through different tools and scholars were told to toe the line or keep quiet.

The worsening humanitarian crisis and looming geopolitical and moral consequences have made China’s initial position on Ukraine increasingly untenable. In the past two weeks, there has been gradual shift, with one official saying China-Russia ties have a “bottom line” and state media now including the Ukraine side in its coverage.

It is true that Chinese social media is heavily censored, yet the frustration can easily be found on social media platforms , although the number may not be large.

People in China are closely watching unfolding developments related to Russia-Ukraine conflict. Now that Russia has decided to drastically cut military activity around Kyiv and Chernihiv in Ukraine after talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiating teams in Istanbul, Chinese too, like citizens in other countries, will form their opinion on it. However, despite efforts of the Chinese government, the importance of public opinion in China cannot be written off. Even in an authoritarian state it can shape major policy decisions, especially when the timing is right.

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