Russia’s propaganda campaign around the war in Ukraine reaches China

Moscow’s strategic ally has repeated the Kremlin’s official narrative in its own news outlets and deleted messages about the invasion on social media

Signs saying "We Support Ukraine" outside the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3.
Signs saying "We Support Ukraine" outside the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3.NOEL CELIS (AFP)

Andrew Parsons, the Brazilian president of the International Paralympic Committee, began his speech at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing on March 4 with a call to peace. “I’m horrified at what is taking place in the world right now. The 21st century is a time for dialogue and diplomacy, not war and hate,” he said, alluding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But his message didn’t reach viewers in the Games’ home country: CCTV, the state television network, censored his words, neglecting to translate them into Mandarin.

That same weekend, iQiyi, the Chinese streaming platform that broadcasts English soccer, canceled the broadcast of the Premier League games in order to avoid showing the stadiums full of signs of support for Ukraine, including the team captains’ armbands in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Propaganda and censorship are always weapons in any war, and China, which has chosen a path of neutrality but remains aligned with Russia, is one of its battlefields. Spokespersons for the Chinese government have repeated the invading country’s narrative about the conflict. Two days ago, the Foreign Ministry echoed unfounded accusations that Russia had previously leveled: that the United States maintains thirty-some laboratories of chemical weapons in Ukraine. And national media outlets have been following the government’s narrative as Beijing’s own narrative has shifted. Voices that put forth alternative accounts are excluded.

By repeating Moscow’s message, “China is trying to find a logical argument to justify its support for Russia” in the invasion, said Justyna Szczudlik, from the Polish Institute of International Affairs. The expert points out that China’s official discourse “avoids mentioning Ukraine by name. It always alludes to the ‘Ukrainian problem,’ the ‘Ukrainian situation.’ It doesn’t explicitly express support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine; it always speaks generally about ‘respect for states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.’” Meanwhile, it frequently mentions Russia by name.

Beijing’s discourse has followed what some are calling a “pro-Russia neutrality,” which its media outlets have reflected. In the weeks before the conflict, Chinese official spokespeople, media outlets and social media mocked the United States’ statements about Russia’s intentions to invade the neighboring country, as did their counterparts in Russia. On the eve of the attack, Shimian, a digital outlet owned by the official newspaper Beijing News, published, apparently by accident, a memo of the Chinese Cybersecurity Agency to media outlets: they should publish neither information favorable to the United States nor critiques of Russia; comments should be carefully monitored and they should only use information sent from the three state-owned media giants: the Xinhua news agency, CCTV and the People’s Daily.

China is trying to find a logical argument to justify its support for Russia
Justyna Szczudlik, Polish Institute of International Affairs

During the first days of the war, Chinese news outlets were cautious about what they published, even as in the rest of the world, the invasion covered entire pages of newspapers and filled broadcast schedules. In fact, Chinese outlets gave little to no attention to the conflict, prioritizing President Xi Jinping’s speeches and the aftereffects of the Olympic Games. They did not use the word “war” or “invasion,” opting instead for “crisis” and “special operation.”

But that changed after a few days. The media began to dedicate more coverage to the war, now with a clear pro-Russian tone, directly repeating information from Russian media. CCTV’s social media accounts posted an unverified news segment from Russian television alleging that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy had fled to Poland.

In recent days, Beijing’s position has evolved to adopt a more aggressive position on the conflict. A memo from the Chinese Cyberspace Administration to internet companies that was leaked to the China Digital Times, an online publication that analyzes Chinese media, ordered them to “turn down the temperature on public sentiment toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” Local outlets, webpages and blogs may not conduct livestreams or use hashtags related to the war, and “are strictly prohibited from republishing foreign news reports in violation of regulations.”

Censorship has also reached Chinese social media. Users’ public opinion largely reflects official support for Russia, although it’s hard to know whether that reflects the true pulse of society (which still remembers NATO’s 1999 bombing of its embassy in Belgrade, Serbia) or if it’s simply the result of censorship. Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, has informed that thousands of accounts have been shut down or temporarily suspended.

Among the frozen accounts is that of the popular transgender actress and television personality Jin Xing. Her last message reads: “Respect all lives, firmly oppose war.”

Julian Wei had his account suspended by Douyin, the video-sharing network known elsewhere in the world as TikTok. “I posted a message critical of Russia at night. By the next day I had a message that said my account had violated China’s norms and policies and that it was being deleted forever,” said the 32-year-old lawyer. Douyin has stated that it has erased 6,400 videos, suspended more than 1,600 livestreams and deleted more than 12,000 comments about the war.

Also scrubbed from the Chinese internet is an open letter signed by five Chinese history professors who condemned the war and China’s official narrative. In the declaration, published on February 26, two days after the invasion began, the authors denounced that “independently of Russia’s many reasons and excuses, the use of force to invade a sovereign country violates the international relations norms based on the UN charter.” “We sympathize with the suffering of the Ukrainian people,” they added.

A similar letter, signed by 200 alumni of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, demanded that the institution strip Putin of an honorary degree he had received, according to the South China Morning Post.

Across Chinese social media, there’s the official narrative but also a lot of counternarratives circulating, even if they get shut down as quickly as they go up, said Anthony Saich, director of Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, at a recent seminar. In his view, this clearly shows that people in China have a varied view on the issue, and that some are disturbed about the long-term consequences.

Meanwhile, the International Paralympic Committee has demanded that CCTV give an explanation about its censorship of Parson’s speech. They have yet to receive a response.

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