In a rare survey of Chinese public opinion on the Russia-Ukraine War conducted by the Carter Center in March-April 2022, we can identify two highly significant findings: first, the majority (around 75 percent) of respondents believed that supporting Russia was beneficial to China’s national interest; second, the consumption of national state media and the use of social media were the top two predictors for the pro-Russia attitude.
Outside observers and some China researchers once believed that social media was a place for the Chinese public to express diverse opinions, especially those alternative to, or even critical of, the dominant narrative in state propaganda. Contrary to this expectation, we see a pattern of convergence between state media and social media on the issue of Russia-Ukraine War. This pattern is the product of a decade-long process involving political censorship, cooptation, commercial incentives, and transnational flow of disinformation, and reveals a much more complicated landscape of Chinese social media than the traditional picture of top-down propaganda.
Pro-Russia as a ‘Secret Code to Wealth’
On the YouTube-like video platform Bilibili, the most watched video about the Russia-Ukraine War was not published by state media. It is titled ‘What kind of big power game is hidden behind the strange Russia-Ukraine conflict?’, published by the zimeiti 自媒体 (self-media) account Lu Kewen Studio 卢克文工作室 on 24 February 2022. Arguing that Ukraine was a puppet of the United States and that the war was the result of American provocation and the ‘aggressive eastward expansion’ of NATO, the video was the top trending video on the site the day after its publication, and accumulated more than 9.5 million views by the end of August 2022.
Another top video on this issue is ‘Emergency deletion, mysterious virus, biochemical experiments… What exactly did the U.S. do in Ukraine?’ by another zimeiti Sai Lei Hua Jin 赛雷话金 on 25 March 2022. It had more than 7 million views by the end of August 2022. As the title suggests, it is a video promoting conspiracy theories about American biolabs.
Both Lu Kewen Studio and Sai Lei Hua Jin are notorious zimeiti accounts that have built extremely large follower bases by publishing sensationalist nationalistic content in various forms. These include articles on WeChat public platform and Jinri Toutiao 今日头条 (China’s leading news aggregator, a core product of the company ByteDance), and videos on Bilibili, Xigua Video, and Weibo. And they are far from the only prominent actors in this business—other big zimeiti accounts include Zhan Hao 占豪, Wuheqilin 乌合麒麟 (who created the infamous, computer-generated image of an Australian soldier slitting an Afghan child’s throat that was promoted by Foreign Affairs official Zhao Lijian in November 2020), Digua Xiong Laoliu 地瓜熊老六, among others. All of them harvest and monetize user attention on social media by waving the nationalistic flag, which includes rooting for Russia, the ‘friend without limits’ as proclaimed in the joint statement issued by the Chinese and Russian governments during the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in February.
Some may wonder if zimeiti like Lu Kewen Studio, Sai Lei Hua Jin and Zhan Hao are affiliated with the Party-State. For example, Sai Lei Hua Jin’s video pushing the American biolabs conspiracy theory was a collaboration between Sai Lei Hua Jin and the Henan Provincial Committee of the Communist Youth League. Zhan Hao is a member of the Hubei Provincial Committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). However, the emergence of nationalistic influencers is more about commercial incentives than about political manipulation. As I have argued in a previous paper on zimeiti, the industry is enabled by social media platforms and the business model of the attention economy and focuses on strategies to attract traffic, which could translate into advertising revenue. Nationalistic content, while being politically safe and unlikely to be censored, is highly effective in getting attention due to its highly emotional nature. Not surprisingly, many astute businesspeople have chosen this path.
To use a popular online catchphrase in China, Lu Kewen and his peers have found the ‘secret code to wealth’ 财富密码. Praising Russia and Putin, denouncing the United States and NATO, and mocking Ukraine and its actor-president has proven a fruitful way to activate the ‘secret code’. Seeing the influencers’ huge follower bases on social media platforms, the state has chosen to collaborate with them, offering the political connections the entrepreneurs craved, while piggybacking on their popularity to spread pro-government messages.
Strategic Filtering and Import of Information
The Party-State closely monitors and censors information about the Russia-Ukraine War on Chinese social media. A few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, five renowned Chinese historians published an open letter online, denouncing Russia and calling for peace. ‘In the midst of all the noise, we felt the need to make our voices heard,’ the letter said, ‘We are concerned that Russian military action will lead to turmoil in Europe and the entire world, and trigger a wider humanitarian disaster.’
Censors took down the letter after two hours and forty minutes. Although the authorities never explain the reasons of censorship, in this case, we can speculate that what triggered the alarm was not only what could be seen as the writers’ anti-Russia stance, but also the nature of collective action in the drafting and public release of the co-signed letter.
However, the Party-State does not simply block all information about the war that is not published by its official sources. Rather, it strategically allows certain messages from outside the ‘Great Firewall’ to be introduced into China’s cyberspace.
Russia’s mouthpieces RT and Sputnik both have official accounts on Weibo, with tens of millions of followers collectively. They are two of the main providers of pro-Russia narratives on Weibo, which also amplifies their voice through algorithmic recommendation and putting their posts on the trending list. The WeChat public account of the China Daily interviewed the deputy chief editor of RT in March, who argued that the Western world was waging a war of information and public opinion 信息舆论战 to isolate and censor Russia’s voice. An underlying message of the interview was that unlike Western audiences who were ‘blinded’ by Western media, Chinese readers could get ‘comprehensive’ information about the war thanks to their access to Russian media on Chinese platforms.
Under such arrangements, the Russian government and media could easily export their disinformation campaigns to Chinese social media. Sai Lei Hua Jin’s American biolab story, originally disseminated by the Kremlin, chimed with conspiracy theories that had already spread across the Chinese internet about the origins of COVID-19. It was reported by multiple state media and promoted to the trending topics list by Weibo. No wonder that about half of the respondents in the Carter Center’s survey had seen the conspiracy theory, and only 13 percent deemed it inaccurate.
There is also a large group of Chinese social media users spontaneously importing pro-Russia information from the outside. Many of them are military enthusiasts with nationalistic attitudes. The dynamic resembles that of the importation of Western (anti-Black) racism and Islamophobia by influencers to Chinese platforms, the subject of a previous study of mine. The influencers selectively translate messages from foreign media and social media sites such as Twitter. If the messages were not favourable to Russia, they would interpret them as fake news or evidence that the West was targeting Russia (and China) for political reasons. For example, when an influencer posted a video of destroyed Russian military equipment on Ukraine’s Independence Day, he added a comment that Russian people questioned why there were no visible ‘Z’s or ‘V’s (Russian symbols of its military actions in Ukraine) and figured that ‘they might be Ukraine’s own stuff.’ His followers commented on the video that ‘It’s natural for an actor to borrow some props.’ A wide range of information might indeed be able to get into China’s social media platforms, but it is largely used and twisted to support, rather than challenge and diversify, the mainstream narrative.
The Small Yet Important Group Sympathising with Ukrainians
Although pro-Russia attitudes and content prevail on Chinese social media, there is a small yet important group of people who openly express their support for Ukraine, despite heavy censorship and possible offline retaliation.
Besides the open letter published by historians, there are also other notable initiatives. For example, a group of Chinese internationalists launched an ‘alternative new agency’ 替代性通讯社 named hxotnongd 与此同时 (‘meanwhile’) that publishes articles with a firm anti-war stance and solidarity with Ukraine on WeChat. Although censors eventually deleted the content and the WeChat account, their articles managed to circulate among some groups of young and well-educated people in China (see their Facebook page).
Videos published by Wang Jixian 王吉贤, a software engineer living in Ukraine’s third-largest city Odessa, reached a larger group of audiences before getting censored on WeChat video channel. In the videos, Wang shared his fear living in a country with ongoing war and his anger at his fellow Chinese citizens who supported Russia. Although we don’t know how many people followed his WeChat video account before the platform blocked him, his YouTube Channel had more than 110 thousand followers by the end of August 2022.
Some of the more subtle voices sympathising with Ukrainians have survived on the Chinese internet. For example, Guyu 谷雨, a media account focusing on non-fiction storytelling, published a story in late March, in which the author described her experience of volunteering at Berlin’s central station to help Ukrainian refugees. The podcast The Weirdo 不合时宜 produced two episodes about the war, one in February, another in August. The host and the guests on both episodes expressed a clear pro-Ukraine stance. The second episode also featured a Chinese student studying in Ukraine, who volunteered in the community by teaching painting to children in the shelter and raised money from his Chinese friends and followers to help Ukrainians. Another popular podcast, Story FM 故事FM, released an episode in June about how museum staff in Ukraine protected artifacts and preserved culture and history. The message of the brutality of war and the impressive efforts to save culture was clear.
It should be noted that such voices mostly appear on platforms that don’t allow for public comments and limit the direct interactions among users. Such platforms, like the WeChat public platform and podcasts, make it hard for trolls to harass and attack the authors. It is much more difficult to express anti-Russia opinions on relatively open platforms such as Weibo and Bilibili, which are more vulnerable to cyber bullying. That said, the official Weibo account of Ukraine’s Embassy in Beijing, which constantly publishes anti-Russia posts, has a moderate number of followers (roughly 136,000 at the end of August) and an average post can get dozens and even hundreds of comments and shares. Comments like ‘Go Ukraine!’ ‘Support for Ukraine’ can be easily found on this account, despite the obvious risk associated with such open expression.
Although publicly audible anti-Russia voices are understandably fewer than those who support the invasion, they demonstrate that discussions and opinions on the Russia-Ukraine War in China are far from black-and-white.