More than 10,000 Chinese were in Ukraine when Russia invaded on February 24, 2022.
The “friendship without limits” that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping announced between their countries three weeks before the invasion did not prevent the Chinese from suddenly finding themselves in a war zone.
Although the Chinese leadership appeared to be as surprised by the Russian invasion as the rest of the world, that shock did not translate into condemnation of Moscow’s actions, then or now.
Days after the invasion, China’s state-run 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 worsening situation.
The People’s Daily – along with most of China’s new media – had by then rallied behind Russia and its war in Ukraine.
More than a year later, Chinese media coverage of the war still strongly reflects Moscow’s narrative and sometimes amounts to mere “copy and paste” of Russian war propaganda.
“I gave up trying to understand what was going on,” 24-year-old Yu-Ling Song* from Xiamen told Al Jazeera.
There is one version of the war reported by the Chinese media and the Chinese, Song said, and a very different version from the Western media and her Western friends.
This left her very confused, she added.
Different media realities
Hsin-yi Lin from Shanghai has not yet completely given up trying to understand the situation in Ukraine. However, she concluded that when it comes to war, China exists in an information bubble cut off from the rest of the world.
“I think most Chinese people don’t notice because they either don’t pay attention to the war or they only get news about it from the Chinese media,” she told Al Jazeera.
“But if you’re able to look beyond the firewall [a term used to describe China’s draconian censoring of the internet]you see the war being talked about very differently and reported very differently in the international and Western media,” she told Al Jazeera.
At the start of the invasion, China’s state-run CCTV broadcast allegations that the United States had funded the development of biological weapons in Ukrainian laboratories. It was also reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had fled Kiev after the first wave of Russian attacks.
Chinese media then dutifully reported Russian claims that reports of torture and killings of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha, near Kiev, were “fake news”.
All along, the invasion was called, and still is, a “special military operation”, just like in the Russian media.
Despite repeated statements by Chinese leaders that China is a neutral party in Russia’s war against Ukraine, the country’s state media is far from an impartial observer of the conflict.
Brian Tang from Guangzhou is mostly informed about the war through foreign media.
According to the 33-year-old, this means he cannot discuss the war with most of the people in his life because they mostly get their information from Chinese television and Chinese online news, leaving them with no information or completely different information about the war than he has.
“It means that not only do you have different opinions, but you also have different realities,” Tang said.
It also makes no sense to turn to Chinese social media to share his thoughts on the war, he said. “What would be the point?” he asked rhetorically.
“The censors may remove your posts and your account may be suspended or worse.”
At the start of the war, several public figures and university professors in China shared critical views on the Russian invasion, but their posts were quickly censored and several had their social media accounts deleted.
The big goose becomes the weak goose
However, despite the censorship and information bubble, both Lin and Tang noticed a change in the way the Russian invasion was being discussed on Chinese social media.
Lin saw some anti-war comments on Chinese social media when the war first broke out, but the vast majority of posts she read were pro-Russian and anti-Western.
“Now, I think there are a lot more posts and comments that are critical of Russia compared to before, and they also stay longer before being removed by censors,” Lin said.
Lin and Tang also noted a shift in online discussions of the war, with the term “weak goose” becoming more dominant in posts and comments on Chinese platforms. Russia is often informally referred to as the “big goose” in China because the Chinese word for “Russia” and the word for “goose” sound similar.
“When Russia first invaded Ukraine, we all heard that the Russians would win very quickly because people thought they were so strong and the Ukrainians were so weak,” Tang explained.
But when the Russian offensive quickly stalled, it turned out that the “big goose” wasn’t as powerful as it had been made out to be — it was actually a “weak goose,” Tang said.
With or without censorship, Lin believes that it is clear to most people that the war is not going very well for Russia, which is why some Chinese have withdrawn their support.
“They expected a short war, and now nobody knows how long it will last,” she said.
And as the war progresses, Tang believes that what is posted on Chinese social media and reported in the Chinese media will matter less and less.
“In the end, the Chinese will just want the war to end,” he said.
*Respondent names have been changed to comply with anonymity requirements.