What China’s Social Media Is Saying About Ukraine

Our analysis of online comments shows that pro-Moscow posturing is a veil for expressing a deeper critique of U.S. influence.

A single red pawn on one end of a seesaw scale outweighs two pawns on the other end, one blue and one yellow.
The Atlantic

A comment widely circulated across various Chinese social-media platforms in recent days depicts the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a romantic triangle: Ukraine is characterized as Russia’s ex-wife, who mistreated the couple’s two children—the breakaway pro-Moscow regions of Luhansk and Donetsk—and who also flirted with the United States and dreamed of joining the NATO family but was rebuffed. Alternate and expanded versions of the metaphor include the U.S. abducting another child, Taiwan, with the implication that China should follow the example of Russia, which took back its own offspring, Crimea.

What is striking about these posts, aside from the obvious misogyny (one comment notes that the characterization “presupposes women have no independent personality, but only an evil mind”), is the central character in all of them: the United States.

Many commentators and Western officials have interpreted China’s noncommittal position over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a manifestation of Beijing’s intensified alliance with Moscow. Focusing on the so-called boundless friendship between the two authoritarian powers, however, deflects from China’s primary focus in this crisis. Our analysis of social-media comments on China’s heavily circumscribed social networks and official statements about the invasion reveals that pro-Russia posturing—whether by government representatives or netizens whose opinions have been widely shared (and thus can be interpreted as representing mainstream sentiment)—is a veil for expressing a deeper critique of American, and more broadly Western, influence.

In diplomatic statements and social-media discussions alike, Russia’s war on Ukraine is rationalized as a necessary step for resisting Western (and mainly U.S.) aggression. Chinese officials have never explicitly endorsed Russia’s invasion, but they have explained this conflict as reverberating from military escalation triggered by the United States. At the very outset of the invasion, for example, China’s assistant foreign minister, Hua Chunying, denounced the U.S. for backing Russia into a corner by expanding NATO toward its borders. A renowned international-relations scholar, Shen Yi, went even further, comparing the threat of NATO’s expansion for Russia to that of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for the U.S., and accusing the U.S. and its allies of dominating the global order. A prominent political-science professor, Shiping Tang, argues that Russia’s invasion was in fact a U.S.-orchestrated trap for Russia, Ukraine, and Europe, one that allows Washington to take advantage of collapsed trust in Moscow and rebuild its own ties with Europe.

This anti-Western framing is also widespread in online debates about the crisis. The flood of nationalistic pro-Moscow comments on Chinese social media focus less on Russia itself or on dissecting Russia-Ukraine relations, and more on NATO and the United States as having pushed Moscow into self-defense mode. In response to an illustration of NATO’s geographical expansion posted on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, commenters were quick to attack NATO: “NATO will pay for its blood debt,” “NATO has no limits, and its aggressive ambition will trigger pushbacks,” “No one can endure the eastward expansion on such a scale.” Another popular Weibo post that has generated more than 4,600 shares argued that wars are necessary for long-term peace, and that the U.S. has to abandon its pursuit of hegemonic power. These comments grant little to no agency to Ukraine, blaming or ridiculing it for aspiring to join the wrong great-power alliance. (To be sure, alternative voices have emerged in recent days on the Chinese internet, offering sympathy for Ukraine through shared stories of Chinese expats in the country and war-zone scenes, but these either are short-lived because of censorship or gain limited traction compared with the more assertive anti-U.S. posts.)

Both official and unofficial comments further underscore the alleged double standards employed by the U.S. and other Western countries; many, for instance, contrast Washington’s concern for Ukraine with its slow condemnation of the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, or set U.S. anger over the invasion against American military interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, for instance, accused the U.S. administration of criticizing China for not doing enough to end the Ukraine conflict while itself failing to maintain international peace and stability. On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, a viral video posted by a stand-up-comedy account mocked Western countries for swiftly implementing sanctions on Russian art, sports teams, and even cats, in contrast to their subdued reactions to an array of U.S.-led attacks and conflicts. The video attracted more than 49,000 likes.

This use of pro-Russia comments as a way to contest the moral standing of the West fits into the larger pattern of the growing combativeness of China’s diplomatic rhetoric. The double-standards framing, for instance, is a common technique in criticizing the U.S. and rebuking accusations against China’s human-rights record. Following the January 6 insurrection in the U.S., Chinese state media accounts actively documented the flaws of American democracy, depicting it as fragile, and compared it with China’s ostensibly more robust and accountable governance. Citing a 2021 Chinese government white paper on the country’s democracy, the state-owned tabloid Global Times asserted that in China, the authorities have direct contact with society, and work to “maximize people’s welfare,” whereas in America, politics operates through inefficient mechanisms of elections, and efforts to improve people’s lives are often distorted by the force of capital.

China under President Xi Jinping is eager to take “discourse power” from the West, which it views as intending to hinder China’s rise, and so Russia may be a timely proxy through which Beijing can channel its discontent. The eager uptake of this stance by digital nationalists suggests that the official framing of the conflict has helped boost the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, without it having to take the actual risk of economically and militarily siding with Russia.

The conflict in Ukraine is not the only thing China views through the prism of its rivalry with Washington. It sees the lessons it must learn from the crisis through a similar lens. The unified effort by Europe and the United States to hit Russia’s economy is likely to deepen Xi’s conviction that China needs to rely less on the West. Official statements and state media reporting already showcase this mindset: In contrast to Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech, which opened with a focus on Ukraine, China’s National People’s Congress so far has focused primarily on the domestic economic and societal governance. Chinese media coverage of Ukraine has also been eclipsed by news about Xi and his various successes, as well as coverage of the National People’s Congress.

In a recent poll, a blogger on Weibo asked how China should handle its relations with Russia; the majority of respondents said that Beijing should support Moscow, but the most upvoted comments argued that, ultimately, China should focus on itself and on countering the U.S. in the long run. Hu Xijin, Global Times’ former editor in chief, has echoed this sentiment, arguing that China’s diplomatic mindset is different from that of Russia, and that Beijing should wrestle with the U.S. but avoid direct confrontation.

In reflecting on the economic costs borne by Russia thus far as a result of the invasion, official and online discussions have also focused on the need to take preemptive measures, such as constructing a digital currency and reducing China’s reliance on the SWIFT international payment system, and boosting China’s domestic technological and military capability. China has already passed an anti-foreign-sanctions law to counter the U.S. and European Union’s response to Beijing’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Zhang Yesui, the spokesperson for the National People’s Congress, claimed recently that this “defensive” move demonstrated how “China is using legislation to counter foreign interference and long-arm jurisdiction.”

The broader lessons Beijing is taking from Moscow’s experience aren’t the first China has taken from observing Russia. Xi has repeatedly invoked the collapse of the Soviet Union as holding lessons for China and stressed the need for the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its own governance to avert similar outcomes.

American officials and commentators have long promoted a narrative of collusion between Beijing and Moscow, and China’s seemingly pro-Russia position on Ukraine has invigorated this argument, calling for a neat division of the world into democracies and autocracies. This risks overstating the bonds between the two countries. China’s pro-Russia rhetoric is more rooted in anti-Western (and particularly anti-American) sentiment than in substantive support for Russia’s military operation or in any unwavering alliance.

Instead, as the Chinese government and Chinese people observe Russia’s rapid disconnect from the global economic system, their focus is shifting more internally, to protect China from similar outcomes. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inspired a nationalist outpouring in China, but it also presents a cautionary tale for Beijing when it comes to contesting the Western—American-led—liberal order.