The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In China, a battle for public opinion over Ukraine pits facts against propaganda

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing on Feb. 4. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)
7 min

Russian troops are in Ukraine because of a “special military operation” provoked by NATO aggression. Their soldiers avoid civilian deaths and share food with Ukrainian children, while the Ukrainian military has been overrun by neo-Nazis who were also behind the protests in Hong Kong. These neo-Nazis also bury civilians alive or harvest organs.

This is a portrait the vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion citizens are getting of the war in Ukraine through state organizations and social media. But two weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some are trying to pierce this fog of misinformation: debunking Russian propaganda, fact-checking, sharing scholarly research or posting videos directly from Ukraine, hoping to alter the reality Chinese citizens see online.

It’s a battle for public opinion that underlines the key role China and its citizens occupy, as Western governments attempt — and fail — to pressure Beijing into using its leverage to end Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

“There are definitely many efforts being made to combat the state and Russian propaganda,” said Yuqi Na, a researcher at the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster. “Even though you can’t necessarily do it in a straightforward way, there are still other ways,” she said.

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The focus on reaching Chinese citizens highlights the potential for public opinion in the country to influence government policies, as well as authorities’ efforts to manage popular sentiment — a dynamic often overlooked in the highly controlled, top-down system.

“The common criticism is that public opinion is part of the state propaganda, but public opinion has its own force,” said Maria Repnikova, assistant professor in global communication at Georgia State University.

The official Weibo microblogging account of the European Union has been fact-checking Russian claims with explanations and videos in Chinese. In one post, it responded to the claim often repeated on Chinese social media that Russia is surrounded by enemies and acting in self-defense.

“No country or coalition is plotting to invade Russia. No one threatens Russia,” it wrote on Sunday.

The French Embassy in Beijing on Monday published responses in Chinese to questions from Weibo users under a campaign called “real vs fake.” On whether France would supply “arms to Ukrainian Nazis,” the embassy said such a move would be “unimaginable” and asked readers, “Are those who fight invaders to protect their homeland Nazis or the opposite?”

Ukrainians have also directly appealed to Chinese Internet users. In videos posted on WeChat, a Ukrainian man fluent in Chinese appealed to Chinese residents to see through Moscow’s misinformation. Last week, a Ukrainian woman in China posted photos of her bombed-out hometown of Kharkiv on Weibo, writing in Chinese, “This is the city where I was born.”

While China claims it has not taken sides in the conflict — neither denouncing the Russian invasion nor overtly endorsing it — state media and Chinese foreign ministry officials regularly echo Russian propaganda.

On Tuesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, repeated a long-running Russian conspiracy theory that Ukraine is a base for U.S. bioweapon development. Ukraine and the United States said in 2020 that the partnership was aimed at reducing biological threats, detecting pathogen outbreaks and developing vaccines.

Noting U.S. involvement in 336 biolabs around the world and 26 in Ukraine while citing no further evidence, Zhao asked, “What is America’s true intention?”

The Russian biolab conspiracy theory quickly spread online in China. A related hashtag on Weibo was viewed 180 million times, while a separate hashtag about Ukraine’s denial of making bioweapons was viewed only 3,500 times.

Pro-Russian or anti-Western voices are the loudest online, as nationalist influencers and independently run accounts publish more extreme claims.

State media regularly cites Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purported mission to “denazify” Ukraine, without further explanation. Chinese media have published exposé-like reports on the Azov Battalion, the far-right militia that has fought for Ukraine since the start of the separatist conflict in 2014 and is known for its neo-Nazi ideology.

“The driving narrative or motivation to believe in pro-Russian disinformation is quite simple. If we don’t support Russia, NATO will eventually threaten China,” said Fang Kecheng, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at City University of Hong Kong. “It’s a flawed and misleading narrative, but it’s easy to go viral and be accepted.”

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As the crisis drags on, more attempts are being made to break through nationalist outlets’ monopoly on information. After the invasion of Ukraine began, Chu Yang, 36, a journalism master’s student in Prague who worked in China, posted a reference list for “real news” including links to independent news outlets and sources for cross-checking information like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Telegram channel or updates from the British Defense Ministry.

“Seeing friends post fake news disseminated by Russia made me want to recommend more reliable sources of information,” Chu said. “The bias of domestic mainstream media is very obvious.”

A collective of volunteers called China Fact Check, started in 2020 to combat misinformation, has published near-daily updates since the Ukraine crisis began. Students from Renmin University in Beijing and an education company called Plan C released guides to fact-checking.

“This is one example of people really wanting to get more accurate information. They are very dissatisfied with the current social media environment and the information available there,” Fang said.

China — caught between its “no limits” strategic relationship with Russia and the desire to not be seen as violating the international order or its own doctrine that a country’s sovereignty is sacrosanct — has tried to straddle a murky middle ground, supporting Moscow while not outright condoning the invasion.

Official media have followed the government’s lead, toning down coverage and focusing on domestic issues like China’s ongoing Two Sessions, the country’s annual rubber-stamping legislative meeting. To refute U.S. narratives, official media often deploy the language of fact-checking.

In an interview with the Beijing Daily, Wang Wen, a scholar at Renmin University in Beijing, described the 10 “discourse traps” laid by the United States, including the idea that “China is happy to see the Russia-Ukraine war worsen” and had provided weapons to the Kremlin.

“China has for a long time been subject to America’s strategic containment and can deeply sympathize with Russia’s unfavorable security situation,” Wang said in an interview.

Chinese media have taken inspiration from their Russian counterparts. A 2020 academic article by an employee of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV praises the influence of Russia Today for producing reports about protests in Hong Kong that delivered Beijing’s message to international viewers.

“The camp of developed countries led by America and Britain rely on their formidable media hegemony to repeatedly exert public pressure on China and Russia, going so far as to publicly spread falsehoods,” Shao Zhenhua, the article’s author, wrote. “China and Russia urgently need to transmit objective truths to the world.”

Still, the intense interest in the crisis and accompanying wave of Chinese nationalism has worried censors. On Saturday, Weibo said that it had permanently banned several accounts and suspended more than 1,000 accounts for content that had a “negative impact” on the online environment. WeChat and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, previously said they cracked down on “inappropriate content” including sexist posts about Ukrainian women.

Pro-Ukraine voices in China have also been silenced. On WeChat, a Chinese national in Odessa posting daily videos of his life criticized Chinese support for the war. He said in one video, “I don’t understand. You guys are more supportive of Putin than Russian people. Tell me, what war of self-defense starts with attacking another country’s capital?”

He later posted a video on YouTube with tape over his mouth in protest of his WeChat account being temporarily suspended.

Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.