China’s Propaganda Over Ukraine Is Shifting and Uncertain

Beijing is backing Moscow—but less so than in the early days of war.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi remotely speaks at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi remotely speaks at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi appears on a screen as he delivers a remote speech at the opening of a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Geneva on Feb. 28. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

China is claiming to be neutral in the Russian-Ukraine war—but its media, at first, was anything but. With propaganda departments working for years to portray the United States as Beijing’s main enemy, Chinese media initially easily slotted the Russian invasion into a narrative where Russian President Vladimir Putin was the put-upon hero and NATO and the West were the malevolent villains.

That’s been visible not only in the content but in some of the leaked directives to Chinese media outlets. Last month, media outlet Shimian, a subsidiary of the state-owned Beijing News, appears to have accidentally posted an internal directive on its official Weibo, saying not to post anything “unfavorable to Russia and pro-Western.” It also wrote that if using hashtags, only use hashtags used by Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, or CCTV (three high-profile state-owned news outlets that usually set the tone for the rest of China’s media).

But as the war progresses, the guidelines are shifting from day to day. Sources at three state-affiliated Chinese media outlets described the shifts to me. “We follow the political stance taken by the Chinese government,” one source said. At the beginning of this invasion, the Chinese government took a very firm pro-Russian stance. On Feb. 24, for instance, People’s Daily’s Weibo published statements that “the U.S. has no right to tell China what to do” and stated that NATO still owns China a blood debt.

China is claiming to be neutral in the Russian-Ukraine war—but its media, at first, was anything but. With propaganda departments working for years to portray the United States as Beijing’s main enemy, Chinese media initially easily slotted the Russian invasion into a narrative where Russian President Vladimir Putin was the put-upon hero and NATO and the West were the malevolent villains.

That’s been visible not only in the content but in some of the leaked directives to Chinese media outlets. Last month, media outlet Shimian, a subsidiary of the state-owned Beijing News, appears to have accidentally posted an internal directive on its official Weibo, saying not to post anything “unfavorable to Russia and pro-Western.” It also wrote that if using hashtags, only use hashtags used by Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, or CCTV (three high-profile state-owned news outlets that usually set the tone for the rest of China’s media).

But as the war progresses, the guidelines are shifting from day to day. Sources at three state-affiliated Chinese media outlets described the shifts to me. “We follow the political stance taken by the Chinese government,” one source said. At the beginning of this invasion, the Chinese government took a very firm pro-Russian stance. On Feb. 24, for instance, People’s Daily’s Weibo published statements that “the U.S. has no right to tell China what to do” and stated that NATO still owns China a blood debt.

The most current guideline is to “address each other’s concerns through peaceful means” and negotiations, matching the speech made by Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations. Media outlets have to appear neutral and are not allowed to pick a side, no matter if that’s pro-Russia or pro-Ukraine—a shift from the initial pro-Russia stance. Under these general guidelines, each media outlet censors itself to avoid official trouble.

Since maintaining domestic stability is always the top priority, the biggest no-go zone is relating Russian events to domestic ones in China, “especially Taiwan,” confirmed one source. The media is not allowed to show any civil movements like anti-war protests or online petitions. This means China’s state media is often reluctant to cover the details and cruelty of war. There has been far more coverage of the upcoming Beijing Paralympics than of the war. On Feb. 26, Xinwen Lianbo, China’s flagship evening news program, began with very lengthy coverage of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s thoughts, with around 3 minutes to cover the invasion at the end.

These ever-shifting guidelines have created confusion and inconsistency among reporters and made their work much harder: Some tried to avoid any political element to their coverage whatsoever and instead wrote about Russia and Ukraine’s history and culture, whereas others avoided talking about the war’s big picture and instead focused on a few Chinese citizens living in Ukraine. One of the biggest sources of confusion is that right after Russia launched its attack, China’s embassy in Ukraine advised its citizens living there to display the Chinese national flag on their cars for safety. Two days later, these citizens were advised to not display any “identifying symbols.” There seem to be genuine worries that the pro-Russia stance put Chinese in Ukraine in danger.

But in online spaces, the mood has been largely pro-Russian—although, as ever, it’s difficult to tell how much of this is genuine sentiment and how much is because pro-Ukrainian or pro-Western content is deleted. After posting an anti-war status on my WeChat on Feb. 24, I was attacked by relatives, former classmates, and acquittances for being pro-U.S. and anti-China.

China’s propaganda department has been shaping a narrative of China versus the United States for years—long before this Russian invasion. In this telling, China is the victim and the United States is the root cause of all social and economic problems China is facing. Putinism slots neatly into this viewpoint; Russia’s problems, like China’s, are portrayed as being all Washington’s fault.

Yet despite the effort Chinese media outlets made to appear neutral, it is still fairly clear that their coverage is pro-Russia, as words like “invasion” and “attack” are not allowed in articles. They often tend to directly use pro-Russia content produced by Russian state media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, without independently verifying the facts. On Feb. 26, for instance, many Chinese media outlets falsely reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and his videos were all pre-recorded. Critical information is often omitted if it paints Russia in a bad light; for example, Beijing News reported on Putin ordering a special regime of deterrence, without contextualizing the implicit nuclear threat. Beijing also spread such pro-Russia content on Western social media platforms like Twitter—tweeted by reporters; such as Shen Shiwei, Chen Weihua, and Li Jingjing, who work for China state-affiliated media; and government officials, who were amplified by China’s own bot networks.

Since Putin has always been hailed as a hero standing up to the West, Chinese netizens show sympathy toward him despite the invasion and nuclear threat. On Douban and Weibo, when sanctions began, there were posts and comments portraying Putin as a small kid bullied by his classmates (the United States, Canada, European Union, etc.).

It’s no surprise, then, that many Chinese online think the invasion is the United States’ and NATO’s fault. America’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is frequently mentioned. Many netizens express hope that since Putin has set an example by invading Ukraine, Beijing could soon claim Taiwan by force. Since Chinese media selectively report all the statements made by Russian state media, Chinese netizens are overly optimistic, saying if China decides to attack Taiwan in the morning, victory will arrive in the afternoon and China’s national flag will fly over Taiwan by the next morning.

Maybe this explains why when Putin’s plan was derailed by Ukraine’s defense and aid from Western countries, Chinese media still wanted to side with Russia. If the Chinese realized that a smaller country could heroically resist a larger one and receive support from all over the world, it would be a painful lesson in just how badly an invasion of Taiwan could go.

Zelensky has also received much criticism on Chinese social media platforms. A lot of netizens criticized him for fleeing Kyiv – which is not true – leaving his people behind while many other netizens accused him of not surrendering soon enough and thus causing unnecessary civilian deaths. The origins of the hate might be traced back to 2019, when Hong Kong protesters said they were inspired by Ukraine’s revolution. On Feb. 27, Guanchazhe and a few other Chinese state media posted on their official Weibo accounts to remind netizens that in 2019, there were a few far-right activists from Ukraine spotted at a protest in Hong Kong.

Yet, there are also Chinese speaking against Russia’s invasion and calling for fairer and better media coverage. As well as from posting on Weibo, WeChat, Baidu, and Zhihu, some of them went a step further by signing petitions and protesting on the street. But such voices usually get censored. On Feb. 26, a peace-provoking article signed by China’s top scholars from five major universities was published by the WeChat account “jiangmenzhiyan.” The article immediately received a lot of criticism and was blocked within two hours.

Many sympathetic voices toward Ukraine and anti-war statements have been censored on China’s internet, including the Chinese translation of an anti-war letter signed by Russian scientists, researchers, and reporters, which I tried to share on WeChat but was rapidly rendered invisible to others—a common censorship tactic. On Feb. 28, 130 alumni from top Chinese universities—include Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Renmin University of China, Shandong University, and more—issued a joint statement firmly opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling on the Chinese government to fulfill its agreement with Ukraine after Ukraine’s nuclear abolition in 1994.

But there’s also been some censorship of the initial wave of pro-Russia coverage, out of fear of endangering Chinese citizens living in Ukraine and damaging China’s international image. Since Feb. 25, Weibo, Douyin, and WeChat have started to delete posts saying China supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Weibo had already handled 542 pieces of such information, and Douyin had regulated 6,400 video clips. As the war goes on and as sanctions bite hard in Russia, China may slowly shuffle away from its previous closeness to Putin—at least, in public.

Tracy Wen Liu is an investigative reporter, author, and translator who focuses on the U.S.-China relationship.

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