Pro-Russian Content Only: China Steps Up Censorship as Ally Invades Ukraine

China, one of Russia's only allies in its invasion of Ukraine, has been blaming the U.S. for the conflict. Now the Xi Jinping is ramping up efforts to ensure online users stick to the party line

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A man reads the Chinese state-run newspaper with coverage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, on a street in Beijing
A man reads the Chinese state-run newspaper with coverage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, on a street in Beijing Credit: JADE GAO - AFP

As the West condemns Russia, President Vladimir Putin has vocal supporters in China, where the ruling Communist Party tells its people they are fellow targets of U.S.-led harassment.

“If Russia is destroyed, we will be next. This is for sure,” said Wang Yongchun, a retiree in Beijing. “The United States wants to dominate the world.”

Such comments reflect the stance of a ruling party that is the closest thing Putin has to a major ally: The war should stop but the United States is to blame.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Beijing in February Credit: Alexei Druzhinin /AP

President Xi Jinping’s government has tried to distance itself from Russia's offensive but avoided criticizing Moscow. The government has offered to act as mediator and denounced trade and financial sanctions against Russia.

The ruling party's control of all Chinese media and intensive internet censorship make it hard to gauge public opinion. But what the party allows online and requires media to publish make clear what it wants the public to think.

Media outlets were told last week to post only pro-Russian content and to censor anti-Russian or pro-Western views, according to a copy of instructions posted on the social media account of the newspaper Beijing News. The post was later deleted.

Online and in social media, expressions of sympathy for Ukraine and support for Russia appear but not criticism of Moscow. “When a war begins, is it not the children of ordinary people who serve as cannon fodder?” said a post signed Da Ke Ming Yi on the Weibo social media platform. “Those who died were the children of ordinary people.”

A letter signed by five professors from prominent universities that criticized Russia for attacking a weaker neighbor appeared briefly on social media before being deleted.

“We stand against unjust wars,” said the academics from schools including Tsinghua University in Beijing, alma mater of many ruling party leaders.

Comments posted by nationalists criticized the professors for failing to stick to the ruling party’s official position of neutrality.

The ruling party has spent decades using school textbooks and the entirely state-controlled media to nurture a sense of nationalist grievance. It accuses the United States of trying to block China’s rise to its rightful position of global leadership.

State media repeat Beijing’s position that the United States and its European allies are to blame for the Ukraine war because they failed to respond to Russian concerns that its democratic neighbor should be barred from joining NATO, the Western military alliance.

People read the Chinese state-run newspaper with coverage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, on a street in Beijing Credit: JADE GAO - AFP

That echoes Chinese complaints that Washington and its allies are interfering in its domestic affairs and issues of national sovereignty, including its claim over Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and in Xinjiang, the far-western region where China has been accused of detaining over a million Uyghurs.

Russia’s attack, as a historical event, “is not a good one,” but “people think the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is because the United States stirred up trouble,” said Zheng Bowen, a 38-year-old engineer. The state-run newspaper Capital News exhorted the public to line up with the ruling party: “The nation’s attitude is our attitude.”

“China has always upheld a fair and responsible attitude, calling on all parties to exercise restraint and ease the situation, and return to dialogue and negotiation,” it said.

However, the newspaper appeared to support Putin’s demand that Ukraine become a neutral buffer between Russia and Europe and give up the possibility of NATO membership.

“Ultimately, Ukraine should be a bridge between East and West, rather than a frontier of confrontation between major powers,” the Capital News said.

Comments online have called for China to support Russia by purchasing its exports of oil, gas and other goods. “Let the Russian Embassy sell their goods on livestream. Let’s show them China’s buying power,” said a comment signed Bao Zou Guang Xiao Pang on Weibo. It received 42,000 likes.

A separate comment advocating that China maintain normal trade with Russia, an implicit rejection of sanctions, received nearly 80,000 likes.

Social media platforms have urged users to act responsibly and say they have removed thousands of postings about the attack on Ukraine. Douyin, a short-video service operated by the Chinese owner of TikTok, said it deleted more than 3,500 videos and 12,100 comments due to “vulgar, war belittling, sensationalist and unfriendly comments.”

The logo of Chinese social media app Weibo is seen on a mobile phone Credit: FLORENCE LO/ REUTERS

The popular WeChat message service also complained about “vulgar posts” that it said have a “negative impact on cyberspace.”

It said some users “took the opportunity to publish bad information about international current affairs," including comments belittling the war such as crass jokes about “gaining course credits by going to Ukraine and fighting in the war” and asking "Ukrainian beauties to come to China,” the platform said.

WeChat’s post was later shared by a unit of China’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China.

Weibo said it removed more than 4,000 posts that were vulgar and ridiculed war. It said more than 10,000 accounts were closed.

“Peaceful environments do not come easily,” the company said in a social media post. It called on users to “maintain an objective and rational attitude” and take part in discussion “in a reasonable manner.”

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