If Russia needs to find some support amid the piling Western condemnation for its invasion of Ukraine, all it takes is a browse on the Chinese internet.
In China’s tightly controlled online space, pro-Moscow sentiment dominates. Celebrities are chastised for voicing sympathy for Ukraine. Hawkish Russian remarks are cheered. And some Chinese users describe Russian President Vladimir Putin as a hero standing up to the West.
The enthusiasm has extended to e-commerce. Some Chinese have flocked to a Russian-owned online store that was said to be endorsed by the Russian Embassy in China, clearing shelves of its products, from chocolates to wafers and vodka.
“Every chocolate is a bullet fired at the nazis, ypa!” wrote one buyer in the store’s review section, in an apparent reference to Putin’s claim that he wanted to “de-Nazify” the country, in justifying the invasion.
The outlet, known as the Russian National Pavilion, saw its online following soar threefold within a day, and has received a total of 50,000 orders since Feb. 28, according to Chinese media reports. By March 2, a video had popped up from Sergey Batsev, an ambassador to China for the Russian nonprofit Business Russia, thanking “Chinese friends” for supporting his country in such “difficult times.”
“During this complicated and ever-changing international situation, we have seen our old Chinese friends’ camaraderie,” he said. “There’s an old Chinese saying that a goose feather sent from far away conveys profound affections. We will cherish this deep friendship in our hearts.”
Meanwhile, nationalist voices on social media have cheered a strong Russia–China partnership.
“I said long ago that with China acting as a shield for Russia, whatever Western sanctions will dissolve to nothing,” wrote a nationalist Chinese scholar on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent. The post included photos that appeared to show long lines of shoppers inside a Russian store in northern China. He had visited the website of the Russian National Pavilion twice without finding anything available to buy, he said.
It’s unclear to what extent these viewpoints reflect the broader public sentiment in China, due to Beijing’s heavy censorship that has silenced voices from the other side.
Several Chinese actors have been censured on Weibo after posting pro-Ukraine remarks. Social media posts by prominent Chinese scholars opposing Russia’s invasion were taken offline, as were suggestions of Russia being on the losing side. A video by a Ukrainian vlogger popular in China, entreating her fans in Mandarin to “respect lives” and “not take war as a joke,” was largely erased from the Chinese internet and is only viewable on Twitter, a platform banned in China.
When the English Premier League announced plans to show solidarity with Ukraine this weekend by having club captains wear armbands in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and displaying on stadium screens the slogan “Football Stands Together” printed on the flag, the league’s Chinese broadcast partner reacted by pulling its scheduled coverage.
Fostering a pro-Russian mood, or at least the impression of it, appears to be part of Beijing’s designs from the beginning.
Two days before Putin started bombing Ukraine, leaked censorship rules showed that Chinese state media had been told to ensure that their content not appear anti-Russia or pro-Western.
As the Chinese regime has refused to use the word “invasion” to characterize Russia’s attack, the word is taboo in coverage across Chinese media. When a reference is necessary, media outlets have adopted Moscow’s descriptor of “special military operation” or used the vague phrase “the current situation.”
In recent press conferences and public statements, Chinese officials have taken an awkward line of refusing to openly back either side. They have simultaneously refused to denounce Russia’s attack, recognized that Russia has legitimate security concerns, maintained that all countries’ sovereignty should be respected, called for a peaceful settlement to the crisis, and blamed the United States for inflaming the prospect of war.
But the Chinese regime’s propaganda machinery has taken on a more fiery tone.
While most media coverage in the country is focused on the Beijing Paralympics, the relatively few Chinese state media reports on the crisis have played down criticism of Russia. The hashtag “multiple countries refuse to sanction Russia,” pushed by nationalist tabloid Global Times, got 120 million views in one day on Weibo.
“Russians, please aim your bullets more accurately,” a reporter from the Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper Jinhua News wrote in a post upon learning that 70 Japanese had volunteered to join the Ukrainian army.
Crude jokes online about welcoming beautiful Ukrainian women refugees to China and pro-Russia remarks have made lives more difficult for Chinese nationals stuck in Ukraine. Some said they were threatened by angry Ukrainians when going to supermarkets.
Beijing’s stance didn’t go unnoticed by Russians.
Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, on March 3 said that Moscow appreciates Beijing’s “impartial and unbiased vision of the Ukrainian issue.”
China “avoids being misled by Western ploys,” she told a news briefing.