Chinese article urging country to sever ties with Putin gets 1 million views | China
When an essay by a prominent Shanghai scholar suggested that China should sever ties with Vladimir Putin as soon as possible over the war in Ukraine, the reaction online was swift.
Although it was published late on a Friday evening in the Carter Center’s US-China Perception Monitor, Hu Wei’s Essay quickly gained a million views in China and abroad and was reposted on Chinese blogs, unofficial media sites and social media accounts.
Then came the backlash, as the article was criticized for being “reckless and dangerous” vitriol. Personal attacks on Hu and the USCPM followed. By Sunday morning, their websites were blocked in China.
“Usually when the government or the censors don’t like a particular article – like [something published by] FT Chinese — they’ll just block that particular article, they won’t block the website,” said Liu Yawei, China program director at the US-based Carter Center.
“So it’s very unusual.”
China’s stance on the invasion and how far it’s willing to go to support Russia is one of the most hotly debated topics of the war, but inside China the conversation is tightly controlled, with little tolerance for dissenting opinions.
“I had read a lot of comments in Chinese media, and Professor Hu’s article certainly disagreed with the majority of those articles,” Liu said. “Hu actually tried to say that these are dangerous views… I made the quick decision to publish it.”
Published in English and Chinese, Hu’s essay argued that Russia’s advance was shaky and that China needed to sever ties with Putin “as soon as possible” to avoid being on the losing side and facing to “additional containment” from the United States and the West.
“China should avoid playing both sides in the same boat, renounce neutrality and choose the dominant position in the world,” he wrote.
Since the Feb. 24 invasion, China has struggled to navigate an awkward position as a close ally of Russia, but unwilling to share international condemnation and economic sanctions. He has sought to hold incompatible positions while respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and what he calls Russia’s “security concerns”. The confusion is reflected in his media and public statements.
Hu is among a number of prominent Chinese voices challenging the official line. Wang Huiyao, chairman of the Beijing-based think tank the Center for China and Globalization, argued in the New York Times that Western alliances would grow stronger and closer as the war dragged on. “It’s not good for China,” he said, calling on the West to bring in Beijing as a mediator and “offer the Russian leader a boost,” which in turn could mend China’s international position.
Messages from Chinese leaders and state media have largely portrayed the government as a neutral peacemaker, but blaming the US and NATO for the conflict and not criticizing Russia and Putin – a key ally with whom Xi Jinping signed an “unlimited” partnership shortly before the invasion.
There is an apparent effort by Chinese state media to report casualties and attacks in a neutral manner, and guidelines have reportedly been issued to avoid particular stances for or against Russia and Ukraine. The dominant angle is anti-Western, and editorials by government spokespersons have accused the United States of misrepresenting claims that China may be giving arms to Russia.
But observers noted that the evening news avoided describing any Ukrainian casualties or damage that might engender sympathy, and still does not refer to it as an “invasion.” Reports and officials have also amplified Russian disinformation and propagandaincluding conspiracy theories that the US is funding biological labs producing chemical weapons in Ukraine, or bogus polls that Ukrainians support the invasionaccording to Taiwan-based media analyst Doublethink Labs.
The foreign-oriented English-language media seem more inclined to report on Russian atrocities and label it a “war,” signaling a realization that his stance on Russia is not well received, but this too is contradicted by misinformation and rhetoric coming from foreign officials.
“English-language publications – such as CGTN – are aimed at foreigners and operate on an entirely different propaganda script,” says Professor Carl Minzner, a China scholar and professor of law at Fordham Law School. “But since these are not aimed at Chinese citizens, they are not a good measure to gauge how Beijing seeks to portray the conflict for its domestic audience.”
In unofficial media and social media, pro-Russian rhetoric is much more common.
The pro-Russian rhetoric among Chinese netizens aligns with — or perhaps grew out of — strong anti-American sentiment that has grown in recent years, Liu says. “It’s dangerously negative,” Liu says, and impossible to quantify.
“That’s why Hu’s voice is important,” Liu said. “We don’t know the percentage of who he represents, but he is an important dissenting voice.”
There is huge interest in the conflict and news stories are trending with hundreds of millions of views and tens of thousands of comments. Dissenting voices are there, mostly concerned about the impact on civilians. But they are few in number and subject to censorship.
On Friday, Wang Jixian, a Chinese national in Odessa, posted two new video diaries to YouTube – a banned site in China – in which he railed against Putin, calling him a “coward” and “wicked”, as well as Putin’s supporters and Chinese authorities for stifling debate.
Wang, whose videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, said much of his content had been “cancelled” and he was barred from messaging WeChat and contacting his parents, who are still in China. He asked people to tell them he was still alive.
“Why are you pressuring my parents? Your power is given to you by your people, with your guns and your bombs, is it for you to shoot your own people? Do you like oppression so much? Come on, shoot your own citizen! he said.
“Making up lies is the only technique and language you have, isn’t it? I know I’m going to see more rumors about me, but do you think I really care?”
Wang’s videos have drawn vitriol on the Chinese internet, including accusations of being a friend of separatists, a slanderer of China, a worshiper of the United States and an annoyance to Beijingers.
“Enjoying both sides, refined selfishness, bah, disgusting,” said one.
Liu hopes that Hu, who is still in China, will not be punished for his trial.
“For scholars to express their own opinions, and [to] allowing people to debate, is a very important trait of any great power,” he says. “China says it’s a great power and any great power should have the self-confidence to allow a healthy and dynamic discussion.”