More than 10,000 Chinese people were in Ukraine when Russia invaded on February 24, 2022.
The “no-limits friendship” Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping announced between their countries three weeks before the invasion did not prevent Chinese people from suddenly finding themselves in a war zone.
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Though the Chinese leadership appeared to have been as surprised by Russia’s invasion as the rest of the world, that shock did not translate into a condemnation of Moscow’s actions, either then or now.
Days into the invasion, China’s state newspaper, the People’s Daily, published a message on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, in which Beijing’s embassy in Kyiv called on its citizens in Ukraine to unite amid the deteriorating situation.
The People’s Daily – along with most of China’s new media – had by then united behind Russia and its on the Ukraine war.
More than a year on, Chinese media coverage of the war still strongly echoes Moscow’s narrative and at times amounts to a mere “copy and paste” of Russian war propaganda.
“I’ve given up trying to understand what is going on,” 24-year-old Yu-Ling Song* from Xiamen told Al Jazeera.
There is one version of the war reported by Chinese media and Chinese people, Song said, and a very different version from Western media and her Western friends.
It has left her very confused, she added.
Different media realities
Hsin-yi Lin from Shanghai has not yet given up entirely on trying to understand the situation in Ukraine. But she has concluded when it comes to the war, China exists in an information bubble cut off from the rest of the world.
“I think the majority of Chinese people don’t notice it because they either don’t pay attention to the war or they only get their news about it from Chinese media,” she told Al Jazeera.
“But if you are able to look beyond the firewall [a term used to describe China’s draconian censoring of the internet], you see that the war is talked about very differently and reported on very differently in international and Western media,” she told Al Jazeera.
Early on in the invasion, China’s state broadcaster CCTV ran claims that the United States had funded the development of biological weapons in Ukrainian labs. It was also reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had fled Kyiv in the wake of the first wave of Russian attacks.
Chinese media then dutifully relayed the Russian assertions that reports of torture and killings of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, were ”fake news”.
All the while, the invasion was, and still is, being referred to as a “special military operation”, just as in Russian media.
Despite Chinese leaders’ repeated statements that China is a neutral party in Russia’s war on Ukraine, the country’s state media is far from an impartial observer of the conflict.
Brian Tang from Guangzhou mostly stays updated about the war through foreign media.
According to the 33-year-old, that means he cannot discuss the war with most people in his life because they largely get their information from Chinese TV and Chinese online news, which leaves them with no information or entirely different information about the war than he has.
“It means that you not only have different opinions, you have different realities,” Tang said.
There is also no point in turning to Chinese social media to share his thoughts on the war, he said. “What would be the point?” he asked rhetorically.
“Your posts might get removed by censors and your account might get suspended or worse.”
At the beginning of the war, several public figures and university professors in China shared critical views of Russia’s invasion but their posts were quickly censored and several had their social media accounts deleted.
Big goose becomes the weak goose
Despite the censorship and the information bubble, however, both Lin and Tang have noticed a change in the way the Russian invasion is being addressed on Chinese social media.
Lin saw some anti-war remarks on Chinese social media when the war first broke out but the vast majority of posts she read were pro-Russia and anti-Western.
“Now, I think that there is a lot more posts and comments that are critical of Russia compared to before, and they also stay up longer before they are removed by censors,” Lin said.
Lin and Tang have also seen a change in the online discussions of the war, with the term “weak goose” becoming more predominant in posts and comments on Chinese platforms. Russia is often referred to informally as “big goose” in China because the Chinese word for “Russia” and the word for “goose” sound alike.
“When Russia first attacked Ukraine, we all heard that the Russians were going to win very quickly because people thought that they are so strong and the Ukrainians are so weak,” Tang explained.
But when the Russian offensive quickly became bogged down, it turned out the ”big goose” was not as powerful as had been imagined – it was in fact a “weak goose”, Tang said.
With or without censorship, Lin thinks that it is clear to most people that the war is not going great for Russia, which has made some Chinese people abandon their support.
“They were expecting a short war and now no one knows how long it will last,” she said.
And as the war drags on, Tang believes it will matter less and less what is posted on Chinese social media and what is reported in Chinese news media.
“Eventually, Chinese people will just want the war to end,” he said.
*The names of interviewees have been changed to accommodate requests for anonymity.