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China, urging de-escalation in Ukraine, expresses concern for civilians after citizen is shot during evacuation

An image of the Ukrainian flag outside the Canadian Embassy in Beijing includes the words “We stand with Ukraine” on March 1. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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In sign of rising worry over the conflict in Ukraine, China’s foreign minister expressed concern over civilian casualties and said that preventing further escalation was a “top priority” during a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart.

Wang Yi’s remarks were some of the sharpest China has made about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing has been loath to directly criticize. While Wang told Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba there has been no change in China’s stance, he did dwell more on the loss of life than in other recent statements from Beijing, as well as the potential for further harm to civilians.

“China deplores the outbreak of conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and is extremely concerned about the harm to civilians,” Wang said in a phone call with Kuleba, who requested Beijing’s assistance in negotiating a cease-fire, according to a readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry late Tuesday.

China has been struggling to get its citizens safely out of the embattled country. One Chinese national was injured by gunfire while trying to leave Ukraine, with his condition now stabilized, China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV reported Tuesday. Ukrainian police helped escort other Chinese to the border.

China struggles to navigate its partnership with Russia following Ukraine invasion

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, China has been carefully balancing its burgeoning relationship with Moscow in confronting a Western-led world order and its long-standing stated commitment to noninterference in other nations’ affairs.

In the call, Kuleba expressed Ukraine’s hope for China’s help in bringing about a cease-fire, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Wang said China supports all constructive international efforts that lead to a political solution.

“In view of the continuing expansion of the fighting, the top priority is to ease the situation on the ground as much as possible, to prevent the conflict from escalating or getting out of control, and especially to prevent harm to civilians and the emergence of humanitarian crises, and to ensure the safe and timely access of humanitarian aid,” Wang said.

Beijing’s position is under close watch: China is believed to have more influence over Russia than any other country, due to the nations’ growing security and economic ties. As Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to invade, the United States called on China to use its influence over Moscow to urge a diplomatic solution.

In its public statements, China has backed Russia in opposing Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, with Beijing saying regional security cannot be achieved by expanding military blocs. Wang repeated that line in his call with Kuleba. China abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote last week that would have expressed condemnation of Moscow’s invasion.

In Tuesday’s call, Wang urged Ukraine to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens. State media reported that a Chinese national was shot while traveling from Ukraine’s east to Lviv in the west and taken to a hospital. An Indian student and an Algerian student were killed in Kharkiv, which endured some of the war’s heaviest shelling Monday.

Beijing has shown alarm at the sharp escalation in violence, which caught the Chinese Embassy flat-footed in evacuation plans for its nationals. In an embarrassing move that drew backlash, the embassy had to announce over the weekend the postponement of evacuations because of its inability to ensure safety along the way. The Chinese ambassador also posted an online video message to dispel rumors he had fled the country.

Then on Tuesday morning, China’s embassy in Ukraine advised Chinese citizens who wanted to evacuate, especially from the country’s eastern regions, to leave “as soon as possible” by train, according to a statement posted on its WeChat account.

Buses were later organized to carry Chinese nationals and their families to the border with Moldova, escorted by Ukrainian police and military vehicles, according to state television. Another group of 106 Chinese students led by a Chinese diplomat crossed into Poland early Wednesday morning.

Embassy spokesman Ding Jianwei said they would fulfill their duty and not let any Chinese citizen be left behind in war-torn areas.

The Chinese Embassy said Tuesday nearly a thousand Chinese nationals were either evacuating by themselves or being evacuated by the embassy. It published a reminder to stay away from soldiers and military installations. “There is the possibility, due to language barriers or inappropriate behavior, of misunderstandings arising with the local people, especially soldiers,” the embassy notice said.

Lyric Li, Pei Lin Wu and Vic Chiang contributed to this report.