China’s Ukraine Dilemma

China’s Ukraine Dilemma

While Beijing has declined to condemn Russia, the government has little interest in sticking its neck out for Putin.

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In late January, as Russia kept amassing its military along Ukraine’s borders, Jiang Libo, a 50-year-old Chinese programmer living in Kyiv, surveyed his acquaintances to see if they were worried. Most of them opined that a full-on war was unlikely. His landlord, for instance, told him Putin “couldn’t be so stupid as to invade Ukraine.” A few weeks later, the Biden administration warned of an imminent Russian invasion—a contrast to Chinese government spokespeople and state-media figures who said the United States was exaggerating and engaged in warmongering. By mid-February, Western countries started to evacuate their citizens. China, however, held firm. On February 16, a foreign spokesperson insisted that Washington was “hyping up the threat of a war” and “spreading false information.”

Then, on February 24, Putin announced a “special military operation,” and by the afternoon Russian troops and tanks had invaded the country from the north, east, and south. From his apartment, Jiang watched the attacks getting closer and closer. First, the Russians shelled a train station he’d recently visited; then they attacked a nearby avenue where he often rode his bike. The Chinese Embassy in Ukraine urged its citizens to stay at home, and for those who had to travel, they suggested that drivers “affix a Chinese flag to a prominent place on the vehicle.” The suggestion, presumably based on the assumption that the Russian military wouldn’t dare strike Chinese citizens, evoked a memorable scene from the propaganda blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2, where a hero held a Chinese flag while evacuating citizens from a war zone in Africa. Chinese state television soon reported that Chinese flags were sold out in Kyiv. (Two days later, the embassy reversed its advice, asking Chinese nationals to avoid revealing their identity, citing “an increase of extreme behaviors in Ukrainian society.”)

If Putin’s decision to invade was surprising—reporting from Moscow indicates that even those close to the Kremlin thought the military buildup was aimed at creating leverage for negotiations—the brave and sustained Ukrainian resistance was stunning. In the US and Europe, it inspired outpourings of support and prompted heavy sanctions. But China, notably, declined to choose a side. Foreign Minister Wang Yi affirmed both Ukraine’s sovereignty and Russia’s security concerns. Over the past week, foreign commentators have characterized China’s response as a “placeholder” and described it as “kicking the can down the road.” Meanwhile, the official state ambivalence is accompanied by mostly pro-Russian but occasionally conflicted propaganda.

The day after the invasion, People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, did not report on the war, and the first mention of it appeared on the third page in articles about a routine foreign ministry press conference and Wang Yi’s phone call with his Russian counterpart. Experts I spoke with told me that the Chinese government likely thought the war would be, as Henry Gao, a law professor in Singapore put it, a “blitzkrieg with a decisive victory.” The drawn-out conflict complicates China’s stance. “Given the lack of major progress of Russia, I think China is calibrating their responses on a daily basis,” Gao told me in an e-mail.

In the long run, China sees Russia as a strategic partner, especially as the United States increases its military presence in the Pacific. But at the moment China seems to have little interest in sticking its neck out to back Russia. “The Chinese government definitely wants to help Russia, but many Chinese firms are already feeling the pain of sanctions,” Gao wrote. “This is not surprising, given that the Chinese economy is much more integrated in the global supply chain than Russia.”

China’s apparent indecision may come from the desire to stay agile. The sanctions regime targeted at Russia, supported not only by the US and European countries but also by China’s neighbors like Japan and Australia, have led to Russia’s drastic economic decline and political isolation. If the situation deteriorates further, China won’t want to be seen as part of the Russia camp. “China has to reconcile its response with diplomatic and security priorities in relations with Russia, Ukraine, the US, and the EU,” Igor Denisov, a senior research fellow at Moscow’s MGIMO Institute for International Studies, told me. “Protracted military hostilities in Europe may force China to demonstrate more clearly that this is not a Chinese game, and China is not playing exclusively on Russia’s side.”

Many ordinary Chinese people have been staunchly and vocally pro-Russia. On Weibo, where the phrase “Russian invasion” is banned, uses of the hashtag “Putin” and “Emperor Putin” skyrocketed alongside memes of Putin riding a bear. “I pay attention to Russia’s fight everyday. Emperor Putin is the man I care about the most at the moment,” one Weibo user posted. “Idolizing Putin was also partially because China-Russia relationship has been relatively stable and friendly throughout the years under him while China’s relationship with the US has been very bumpy,” Han Rongbin, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, told me.

Since the start of the war, Chinese official media has generally supported Russia’s narrative of the conflict. Putin’s televised declaration of war became known, in Chinese, as “Putin’s 10,000-Word Speech,” and many news outlets published the full translated text. Quotes like “Everything that does not suit the hegemon, those in power, is declared archaic, obsolete.… Dissenters are broken through the knee” struck a chord among anti-West nationalists and were repeated and celebrated on social media. Leaked media guidance from the government reportedly told outlets: “Do not share information detrimental to Russia or supportive of the West” and to “stick to the topics coming from the Peoples’ Daily, the central television, and Xinhua.” Maps of NATO enlargement appeared in articles and videos to justify the invasion. A popular commentator and former Xinhua senior editor wrote in his blog, “In the future, China will also need Russia’s understanding and support when wrestling with America to solve the Taiwan issue.… In public, China should say things that are neutral but leaning toward Russia.” At times, official news outlets circulated lies generated by the Russian government, including that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled his country and that Russia would never target civilians.

On February 4, President Xi Jinping and Putin met in Beijing and restated the countries’ consensus against the enlargement of NATO, calling the security bloc “a relic of the Cold War.” Chinese media portrayed the pair as bosom buddies, using the phrase “shoulder by shoulder, back against back.” But now, while China has refused to criticize Russia, it is trying to give itself room to maneuver. At press conferences, government spokespeople stress that Russia is doing its own thing. “Russia is an independent major country, and it decides its policy and actions independently,” Hua Chunyin, the assistant minister of foreign affairs, said recently. “There is a strong awareness that this war could bring international geopolitics to total chaos,” Zhao Tong, a Carnegie senior fellow in Beijing, told me, calling the vague statements a “preventative loss-stop” approach.

Meanwhile, on Chinese social media, there is also a substantial, vocal opposition to the war. Jin Xing, a celebrated transgender dancer and popular TV host, posted on Weibo, “I respect all human lives and am firmly anti-war.” Her page now displays a message that says, “Due to a violation of laws or regulations, this user is forbidden to speak right now.” The writer Yu Xiuhua posted a poem protesting Russian tanks, and the comment section became what people called “a second battlefield.” Sports reporter Wang Qinbo was explicit in his criticism, “I believe one day we will pay heavily for allowing such Russia-controlled…rocket-artillery-like information feed.”

The fight sometimes gets personal. Many people deleted or blocked friends who took the other side. One man tweeted in Chinese, “Because of Trump, my WeChat feed was divided once; because of Covid policies and the origins of the virus, my WeChat feed was divided again.… because of Ukraine, my WeChat feed is now divided another time. Whoever remains are my real friends.” (Twitter is blocked in China but popular among overseas Chinese and accessible through a VPN for mainlanders.) A “Dear Prudence”–style letter featured a college sophomore considering breaking up with her boyfriend over a dispute over the invasion. “He admires Putin. I sympathize with Ukraine,” she wrote. “Is it worth it to distance one’s real-life friends over social affairs in the news?” she asked. (The columnist suggested that the couple cool off until the war ends.)

A week into the war, as thousands of Chinese citizens evacuated, Jiang decided to stay put. About 80 percent of his neighbors had left, he told me. His roommate had been volunteering to transport food and medical supplies to those in need. A neighbor had joined the street battles. Jiang had moved to Ukraine just last summer after leaving behind his government job, a middle-class life, and his marriage in a coastal city. The subways were not as modern in Kyiv, and he lives in a Khrushchyovka, a Soviet-style low-rise apartment building, but he enjoys the more relaxed atmosphere. Perhaps people back home would sneer at his foolishness, but he said he’s glad that at least he doesn’t need to see Putin’s face all over state TV. “When I was in China, people spoke of Putin as if he was God. In Kyiv, people think Putin is a madman,” he tweeted.

Since the war started, he had made it his mission to tell people about his daily life and to dismantle misinformation in Chinese on Twitter, where he has 28,000 followers. When a Twitter user claimed that the Internet was down in Ukraine, he responded, “Please, this message is sent to you using Wifi in Kyiv.”

“The information people receive on WeChat is mostly false,” he told me. “What Emperor Putin? He has two legs and two nostrils just like the rest of us.”

Jiang is baffled by the Chinese support for Russia. “Some people in China lack common sense, which is very scary because they can no longer tell good from evil,” he wrote on Twitter. This kind of information gap has real-world impacts: To some extent, such a gap enabled the war in the first place, Zhao, the Carnegie fellow in Beijing, told me. “Many Russian people truly believe that there was a genocide in eastern Ukraine, and there was fascism in the country.”

Many people in China are isolated from outside information and steeped in government propaganda. Zhao said he worried that “such a perception gap can be a threat to world peace. And it is impossible to dismantle in a short time.”

When Jiang posted on WeChat, mocking Russia, none of his friends liked his post. But life in Kyiv continues. He can still buy bread when his local bakery opens. He heard that there are miles of Russian tanks outside the city and is afraid of air strikes. “I hope the war ends soon.” Spring is coming, he told me. He said he was missing the city’s parks, broad pedestrian walks, beautiful mountains, and Dnieper River.

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