The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid the roar of nationalism, a few antiwar voices in China emerge over Ukraine crisis

A woman holds a sign as people gather at Tokyo's Shibuya area on Feb. 27 to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

With petitions, poetry and one-man protests, a small but increasingly bold contingent of Chinese residents has spoken out against Moscow’s incursions against Ukraine directly contradicting their government’s firm support of its Russian partner.

While such voices have been nearly drowned out by a deafening chorus of pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments, their opinions show opposition to China’s new tilt toward Russia as it seeks to shore up the alliance to counter Western influence.

Local media reported Monday that a man in Hangzhou held up a sign that read: “Stop War” in English. In Chinese, he wrote, “Please do not support war in Ukraine.” On WeChat, Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua published a new poem, titled “I pray a poem can stop a tank.”

China struggles to navigate its partnership with Russia following Ukraine invasion

In an open letter published Saturday, a group of professors from universities in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao called on Russia to stop the incursion. “As a country that was once ravaged by war, where families were destroyed, where everywhere people were dying of starvation, … [w]e sympathize with the pain of the Ukrainian people,” it said.

On Monday, a petition condemning the invasion of Ukraine was signed by 121 alumni from several of China’s top universities, according to a copy provided by one of its organizers. The petition called on the Chinese government to honor commitments made to Ukraine under U.N. Resolution 984, which gave security assurances to countries without nuclear weapons.

“We resolutely support the righteous fight of the Ukrainian people against Russian aggression. We demand that the international community maintain and respect the territorial integrity, the national dignity, and the sovereignty of Ukraine,” the statement said.

In the days since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese social media has been dominated by nationalistic voices following the official line blaming the United States and its Western allies for the crisis.

The overwhelming pro-Russian sentiment, as well as the few pro-Ukrainian voices, underline the delicate position that Chinese leaders are in as they try to navigate a geopolitical landscape where Beijing has little experience. China has been walking a fine line between maintaining solidarity with Moscow while not directly endorsing the attack — an approach that has earned it criticism from other countries as well as Chinese citizens.

State media have refrained from characterizing Russia’s moves as an invasion. Over the weekend, state broadcaster CCTV repeated Russian misinformation reporting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled the country. The broadcaster later updated its report to say the source of the information had not been verified.

While the anti-American sentiment online broadly agrees with the official Chinese position, some of the postings have become too extreme for official appetites, not the least because of fears it could exacerbate anti-Chinese views in Ukraine, where thousands of Chinese nationals await evacuation.

Since Friday, WeChat, Weibo and Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) have all said they have started cracking down on “inappropriate content,” while China’s official People’s Daily implored Internet users to “speak rationally.”

Chinese Internet users have praised the speed and capability of the Russian military — apparently working off Moscow’s characterizations of the fighting — and hailed Russian President Vladimir Putin for standing up to the West.

Putin’s long, angry speech ordering military action trended on the microblog Weibo last week after it was promoted by the nationalist Global Times. In vulgar posts later censored, many users called for Ukrainian women to be sent to China for safety, while others jokingly called for joining the war effort to “get more academic credit.”

On Weibo, users expressed surprise when they learned that some of their Russian counterparts actually opposed the war. “This is the brainwashing of Western color revolutions,” one user wrote, referring to the official Russian and increasingly Chinese view that the popular revolutions in Eastern Europe against pro-Moscow regimes in the 2000s were orchestrated by the West. “These people don’t realize how good they have it,” another said.

Wang Di, chair professor at the department of history at the University of Macao, who signed the statement by academics released Saturday, said the volume of such warmongering views motivated him to sign.

“There’s a worry that the international community may be misled into thinking there is only one voice in China,” he said. “Many people admire Putin because of nationalism or belief in ‘strongmen’ leaders, and this is what is most scary. If China one day is faced with a choice, will it choose peace or war?”

Antiwar views have been met with derision online, with critics referring to such peace proponents as sanctimonious “Virgin Marys” or as hypocrites that oppose all wars except those launched by the United States.

“What I am against is aggression. Ordinary people participate in war, and their lives are ruined by war. War consumes real human lives,” said Huang, 25, working in biomedicine in Quzhou in Zhejiang province, who gave only her surname out of concern for security.

Sun Jiang, professor of history and political science at Nanjing University, who helped draft the open letter signed by professors, said that China must oppose the war or else it will be going against its principles as well as that of the international system.

“Regardless of Russia’s thousands of excuses, the use of force to invade a sovereign country is a violation of the norms of international relations,” he said.

The letter he signed concludes, “Peace begins with the desire in one’s heart. We oppose unjust war.”

Censors appear worried about pro-peace views, as well. Posts about antiwar protests in Russia have disappeared from WeChat, and videos originally published on the news aggregator Toutiao appear to have been removed.

The statement Sun drafted has been removed, and the account that posted it has been closed for “violating regulations.”

Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.