The close of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, on February 20, was a key moment in trying to decipher Russia’s Ukraine invasion plans. Russian President Vladimir Putin would wait until after the Games, the theory went, so as not to distract from the Olympics and to avoid jeopardizing any support Moscow would need from Beijing.
Putin did wait, finally launching an invasion on February 24. But China has not gone all-in on Putin’s Ukraine war, despite Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin declaring there were “no limits” to their friendship.
Instead, the Chinese government has tried to toe a careful line. It has not condemned Russia’s invasion. But though China has criticized Western sanctions on Russia, it has not really moved to help Russia evade them, and it looks like it’s trying to avoid running afoul of the penalties. At the same time, what it says and does outwardly may be a lot different from what’s happening behind the scenes.
Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor in global communications at Georgia State University, said the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is a bit more symbolic than practical. “On the level of rhetoric and symbolism and shared visions of the world, there seems to be some congruence,” she said.
But for now, China is mostly trying to hover around the sidelines of these geopolitical tensions. Repnikova, who studies communications and comparisons between Russia and China, said that China’s delicate position is reflected in its state media, where Ukraine is not dominating news coverage, as least not as much as domestic issues.
What does exist in state-run media and on social media tends to show sympathy for the Russian position — as in Russia, the invasion is not really referred to as a war — and an antipathy for the United States and the West, who are largely blamed for the conflict.
“The pro-Russian [sentiment] is often veiled as this larger critique of the West — so it’s hard to tell how much of it is pro-Russia, how much of it is actually anti-US, or if it’s fused together,” she said. One thing is clear: Between the 2014 Crimea annexation, and this war in 2022, “there’s more anti-American sentiments than in the past.”
Still, Repnikova emphasized that it is really hard to get a complete picture of views in China. There are dissenting voices and alternative perspectives within China, but they often have difficulty sustaining that conversation, especially online, because of censorship.
“There’s a temptation to say everybody in China thinks this or they’re all subjects of propaganda,” Repnikova said. “But there are two caveats there: One is that, yes, there are alternative voices, but it’s just they have a hard time surviving. And the other caveat is that there is organic, bottom-up nationalism in China that’s not necessarily just dictated by the state.”
Both the official state line and what exists online offer a glimpse into Beijing’s careful positioning in the past few weeks — and what it might do as the war continues.
The conversation with Repnikova, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
As best we can tell, how does China view the war in Ukraine?
Well, it’s hard to know exactly how because they’re not very transparent about the inner sentiments of the [Chinese Communist Party (CCP)]. In terms of how it’s been projecting its policies and perspectives, it seems that it’s seeing its own role as staying on the sidelines and constantly reassuring external publics that they are pro-peace, and they want to bring forward dialogue.
But overall, they haven’t been that actively involved so far — at least from what we’re seeing publicly, in terms of bringing this war to an end, or pressuring Russia to stop its invasion.
Whether [the Chinese government] sees the Ukraine war as positive or negative, I think overall, it’s probably more on the negative side because it is an overall disturbance to the global economic flows and China’s own imports of grain, wheat from Ukraine — and from Russia, arguably, as well. It’s also keyed in on potential repercussions for itself, if it ends up somehow bypassing Western sanctions and engaging with Russia in some way that’s seen as saving Russia or enhancing its economic activities, despite sanctions.
So I think overall, it’s seen as another external crisis to deal with for the CCP while dealing with a Covid outbreak within China, and with a big party congress coming up in September, so there’s a lot happening domestically. I think [the war in Ukraine] is seen as a pretty significant crisis to manage externally, but also vis-a-vis the domestic public.
This may be a question that’s tough to answer, but is there a sense that the Chinese government is surprised at how the West responded to Russia’s invasion, especially when it comes to unity on sanctions?
Again, it’s hard to know if they’re surprised because there’s no way to prove that. But overall, I think they’re concerned with that response because it showcases the extent of the possibility of unity and shared advocacy and restrictions, the actual practical measures taken against Russia.
From what I’ve seen, in some of the discussions in Chinese state media and popular sentiments, there is some discussion of “How does China prevent that from happening?” or “How to create more buffer policies or put systems in place so we’re less dependent on the West, or less prone to potentially facing a similar kind of attack or similar type of isolation.” Overall, there’s a sense of a cautionary tale and as kind of a learning experience.
You mentioned state-run media. Is there an overarching theme or themes as to how it is covering the conflict in Ukraine?
First of all, the war hasn’t been that widely covered in Chinese state media for domestic publics. CGTN, a television station aimed at external, global audiences, has covered it quite extensively. But in domestic media, you often see the stories being buried in the midst of other stories about domestic affairs. If you open People’s Daily, the newspaper that is the main mouthpiece [of the CCP], you mostly see Xi Jinping’s policy speeches, all kinds of other topics. But Ukraine is at the bottom somewhere. It’s less covered, or kind of obfuscated in some ways in other stories. That’s one theme.
The other theme is that we see very cautious rhetoric, but no direct blaming of Russia. Not calling it an invasion. I don’t think war is even being invoked, mostly “military operation.” We see quite a bit of language or rhetoric about the war bordering on Russian rhetoric, so a bit of that kind of infiltration or infusion of Russian statements and sources. That’s another thing that I’ve observed.
The other big theme on social media, but also some state media, and the theme that comes up from Chinese diplomats, is this blaming of NATO and the US for the war. So instead of saying, “Well, how does conflict come about, Ukraine or Russia? Who started and why?” It’s “Well, this was almost inevitable because of how much NATO has militarized the region. And the US, of course, being the key member of NATO, has basically provoked this war.”
So a lot of anti-Western, anti-US sentiments or explanations for the war, as opposed to blaming, let’s say, Russia, or even Ukraine. That’s another thing that has stayed pretty fixed in different statements and coverage and media.
Are you seeing those sentiments reflected more organically on social media? I know the internet is tightly controlled, but what do we know about how the public is responding to the Ukraine war?
It was a hot topic for a while. In the last few days, it’s shifted because of the airplane crash and other topics started to take precedence. But the very powerful sentiment is that of nationalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Western sentiment — and quite a lot of pro-Russian sentiments. But as I argued in the Atlantic, the pro-Russian [sentiment] is often veiled as this larger critique of the West — so it’s hard to tell how much of it is pro-Russia, how much of it is actually anti-US, or if it’s fused together.
We do see some questioning voices. It’s not completely controlled. We see some fact-checkers emerging that are checking how stories are reported in some Chinese state-run media and questioning their sources, or questioning the angles they are taking. There are subtle efforts to push back. Some academics signed petitions to express solidarity with Ukraine. We’ve seen also some voices of Chinese nationals in Ukraine reporting on things from there, or expressing their sentiments, which are very different from state media. Some alternative information sources or framings are present, but many have been censored.
Is there anything unusual that jumps out at you about the discourse around Ukraine?
Well, the distinction between the 2014 Crimea annexation, and this war in 2022, is that there’s more anti-American sentiments than in the past, when it wasn’t quite as clearly anti-American. That’s a shift that maybe reflects the state of US-China relations, but also more internal domestic pride in what China has accomplished, how it has managed Covid; there are many other factors and events. So that’s a bit of a shift.
It also depends on how sensitive is the story, and I think this story is somewhat sensitive, in part because how Russia is covered has been a longstanding, sensitive issue. State media, from my research, I’ve seen they’re not really allowed to critique or comment on Russia in a critical way, like reporting on protest movements in Russia or movements that attempt to derail or weaken Putin. You don’t really see those stories coming out in Chinese media.
You mentioned that Chinese media’s coverage of Russia is a longstanding, sensitive issue. I’m sure there’s a lot of history there, but could you elaborate a little bit on what you meant by that?
Russia-China relations, at least officially, from the high-level politics perspective, have been getting closer over decades now. We’re seeing more and more closer ideological pronouncements. The last meeting between Xi and Putin was on February 4, where they signed this declaration and expressed the sentiment of unlimited friendship. To me, a lot of it is more symbolic than practical, in terms of really supporting each other in multiple dimensions. But at the very least, on the level of rhetoric and symbolism and shared visions of the world, there seems to be some congruence.
But Russia has been a sensitive topic to discuss because if you start unraveling what’s happening in Russia, in a way, you’re questioning what’s happening in China, too. You start reporting about protest movements in Russia, another major authoritarian state that seems to be aligned with China when it comes to the world order, like bringing down the hegemony of the US and multipolarity — anything that showcases the weaknesses of the [Russian] regime, or that there’s people challenging it, that is always a dangerous story because it might signal that it’s possible to challenge a major non-democratic state.
That makes sense — covering Russia might hold up a mirror to CCP. But it also makes it seem that this talk of a so-called renewed “Iron Curtain” — with China and Russia aligned against the West — hasn’t really penetrated. It seems as if China wants to be careful in its approach to Russia, but it doesn’t seem as if the Chinese government is welcoming or hastening that global dichotomy.
The dichotomy is interesting, but it’s more complicated than that. The “Iron Curtain” simplifies what’s going on with China. China is trying to maintain access to Western and global markets — that’s why it’s abiding by the sanctions so far and actually inquiring about them in more detail to make sure it doesn’t break them.
Its biggest relationship is still with the US. That’s the biggest rival, the biggest, in some ways, inspiration in some facets of government, it’s the biggest nation that it is reckoning with when it comes to its future. In that sense, that idea that China is just going to completely align with Russia and shut itself off from the world, and that’s it — that’s not quite what we’re seeing. I think we’re seeing an attempt to maneuver both of these sides.
What about Russia? Have you looked at how Russian state media or online discussions view China amid the Ukraine war?
I looked at this a little bit in the first couple of weeks of the war, just looking at what Russia media was saying about China. Initially, there was a lot of quite positive statements about [how] China’s standing with us. “We’re not isolated, we’re not alone, we have this major, major country on our side.”
But then there were also other discussions later on, when we start seeing actual policies. For example, a Russian official reported that China will not provide aircraft parts to Russia. That was taken quite negatively: “China’s being pressured by the US,” or “China is not supporting us,” or “China’s not going to provide us really essential materials.” So it’s not very clear discussion of that, there’s a bit of a mixed sentiment.
One of the things that hangs over China’s approach to the war in Ukraine is this question of Taiwan. There have been a lot of takes in comparing Taiwan and Ukraine, and trying to game out what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for Taipei. I know the Chinese government believes Taiwan to be an “internal” matter and so not analogous, but I’m wondering if those comparisons cropped up in Chinese media or online?
It’s a bit tricky to understand to what extent this Ukraine crisis is going to lead China in one direction or another vis-a-vis Taiwan.
On one hand, on social media, we did see a lot of Taiwan and Ukraine comparisons, like comparing the activities or actions of Russia to what China should be doing, that Taiwan is just like Ukraine, a kind of rebellious pro-Western part of the family that’s trying to get away. A lot of family metaphors and very similar language. That hyper-nationalism and the sense of comparison was there.
But then a lot of those messages got censored. Then we also saw some official statements verifying that Taiwan is not Ukraine, and Taiwan already belongs to China. So if China decides to unify, it’s not the same thing. They’re trying to differentiate themselves, maybe signaling to a domestic audience, “This is not the right rhetoric here, we’re not going to compare Ukraine and Taiwan.” It might also be something so as not to escalate further relations with the West. Right now, the US is distracted with Russia, and that’s good for China. So it’s hard to tell how much they’re thinking about this comparatively within the CCP because, at least officially, they’re suggesting that it’s a very different scenario.
As we’ve discussed, China is trying to navigate this carefully, and is, in a lot of ways, reacting in real time. But it’s standing largely on the sidelines, and I wonder if there is a sense of a missed opportunity for China — that maybe they should be taking a bolder role, maybe potentially being a broker in any peace deal?
So far, I don’t think we’ve seen any signs of that bolder role. Maybe if something more drastic happens. It’s already very horrific, but if it escalates more, or if it expands geographically toward NATO, maybe China will take a different role. But I don’t even know if it will take a different role in that case, honestly; I think it might still condemn what it sees as worth condemning, and then still call for peace, but not necessarily be the one directly advocating.
It’s also the issue that there’s suspicion vis-a-vis China, too. From the Western perspective, would they allow China to be the key mediator? Would they just say, “Yeah, sure, you go ahead, you’re going to be the key player here” or would they want to have oversight over that process? And, if so, how does China look? It’s been promoting this anti-Western, anti-American kind of narrative, and then saying, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to mediate, and work with the West and just abide by whatever they decide.” So it’s a very difficult position.
In some ways, it seems that staying on the outskirts may be a little bit easier, especially because other countries have taken that role, like Israel and Turkey. But it could be a potential win for China, if they did succeed in gauging more agreement and getting something to move forward. But I’m not sure they see that as a worthwhile pursuit, for now.