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Why the Chinese internet is cheering Russia’s invasion

NEW YORK — If President Vladimir Putin is looking for international support and approval for his invasion of Ukraine, he can turn to the Chinese internet.

Why the Chinese internet is cheering Russia’s invasion

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on Feb 4, 2022.

NEW YORK — If President Vladimir Putin is looking for international support and approval for his invasion of Ukraine, he can turn to the Chinese internet.

Its users have called him “Putin the Great”, “the best legacy of the former Soviet Union” and “the greatest strategist of this century”. They have chastised Russians who protested against the war, saying they had been brainwashed by the United States.

Mr Putin’s speech last Thursday (Feb 24), which essentially portrayed the conflict as one waged against the West, won loud cheers on Chinese social media. Many people said they were moved to tears. “If I were Russian, Putin would be my faith, my light,” wrote @jinyujiyiliangxiaokou, a user of Twitter-like platform Weibo.

As the world overwhelmingly condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese internet, for the most part, is pro-Russia, pro-war and pro-Putin.

Mr Putin’s portrayal of Russia as a victim of the West’s political, ideological and military aggression has resonated deeply with many on social media. It dovetails with China’s narrative that the United States and its allies are afraid of China’s rise and the alternative world order it could create.

For its part, the Chinese government, Russia’s most powerful partner, has been more circumspect. Officials have declined to call Russia’s invasion an invasion nor have they condemned it. But they have not endorsed it, either.

Under Mr Xi Jinping, its top leader, China has taken a more confrontational stance on foreign policy in recent years. Its diplomats, the state media’s journalists and some of the government’s most influential advisers are far more hawkish than they used to be.

Together, they have helped to shape a generation of online warriors who view the world as a zero-sum game between China and the West, especially the United States.

A translation of Mr Putin’s speech last Thursday by a nationalistic news site went viral, to say the least. The Weibo hashtag #putin10000wordsspeechfulltext got 1.1 billion views within 24 hours.

“This is an exemplary speech of war mobilisation,” said one Weibo user, @apjam.

“Why was I moved to tears by the speech?” wrote @ASsicangyueliang. “Because this is also how they’ve been treating China.”

Mostly young, nationalistic online users like these, known as “little pinks” in China, have taken their cue from the so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats who seem to relish verbal battle with journalists and their Western counterparts.

The day before Russia’s invasion, for instance, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said in a daily press briefing that the United States was the “culprit” behind the tensions over Ukraine.

“When the US drove five waves of Nato expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?” asked the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying.

The next day, as Ms Hua was peppered with questions about whether China considered Russia’s “special military operation” an invasion, she turned the briefing into a critique of the United States. “You may go ask the US: They started the fire and fanned the flames,” she said. “How are they going to put out the fire now?”

She bristled at the US State Department’s comment that China should respect state sovereignty and territorial integrity, a long-standing tenet of Chinese foreign policy.

“The US is in no position to tell China off,” she said. Then she mentioned the three journalists who were killed in Nato’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, a tragic incident that prompted widespread anti-US protests in China.

“Nato still owes the Chinese people a debt of blood,” she said.

That sentence became the top Weibo hashtag as Russia was bombing Ukraine. The hashtag, created by the state-run People’s Daily newspaper, has been viewed more than 1 billion times. In posts below it, users called the United States a “warmonger” and a “paper tiger”.

Other Weibo users were bemused. “If I only browsed Weibo,” wrote user @____26156, “I would have believed that it was the United States that had invaded Ukraine.”

The strong pro-war sentiment online has shocked many Chinese. Some WeChat users on my timeline warned that they would block any Putin supporters. Many people shared articles about China’s long, troubled history with its neighbour, including Russian annexation of Chinese territory and a border conflict with the Soviet Union in the late 1960s.

One widely shared WeChat article was titled, “All those who cheer for war are idiots,” plus an expletive. “The grand narrative of nationalism and great-power chauvinism has squeezed out their last bit of humanity,” the author wrote.

It was eventually deleted by WeChat for violating regulations.

The pro-Russia sentiment is in line with the two countries’ growing official solidarity, culminating in a joint statement Feb 4, when Mr Putin met with Mr Xi in Beijing at the Winter Olympics.

The countries’ friendship has “no limits,” they declared.

Given that the leaders met just weeks before the invasion, it would be understandable to conclude that China should have had better knowledge of the Kremlin’s plans. But growing evidence suggests that the echo chamber of China’s foreign policy establishment might have misled not only the country’s internet users, but its own officials.

My colleague Edward Wong reported that over a period of three months, senior US officials held meetings with their Chinese counterparts and shared intelligence that detailed Russia’s troop buildup around Ukraine. The Americans asked the Chinese officials to intervene with the Russians and tell them not to invade.

The Chinese brushed the Americans off, saying that they did not think an invasion was in the works. US intelligence showed that on one occasion, Beijing shared the Americans’ information with Moscow.

Recent speeches by some of China’s most influential advisers to the government on international relations suggest that the miscalculation may have been based on deep distrust of the United States. They saw it as a declining power that wanted to push for war with false intelligence because it would benefit the United States, financially and strategically.

Dr Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, told state broadcaster China Central Television, or CCTV, on Feb 20 that the US government had been talking about imminent war because an unstable Europe would help Washington, as well the country’s financial and energy industries. After the war started, he admitted to his 2.4 million Weibo followers that he was surprised.

Just before the invasion, Dr Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, ridiculed the Biden administration’s predictions of war in a 52-minute video programme. “Why did ‘Sleepy Joe’ use such poor-quality intelligence on Ukraine and Russia?” he asked, using Mr Donald Trump’s favourite nickname for President Joe Biden.

Earlier in the week, Dr Shen had held a conference call about the Ukraine crisis with a brokerage’s clients, titled, “A war that would not be fought.”

When the fighting began, he, too, acknowledged to his Weibo followers, who number 1.6 million, that he had been wrong.

Nationalistic emotions on social media were also sparked by the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine. Unlike most embassies in Kyiv, it didn’t urge its citizens to evacuate. Hours into the war, it advised Chinese people to post the country’s red flag conspicuously on their vehicles when traveling, indicating that it would provide protection.

The state-owned People’s Daily, CCTV and many top government agencies posted about that on Weibo. Many people used the hashtag #theChineseredwillprotectyou, referring to the flag.

The idea echoed a movie, the 2017 Chinese blockbuster “Wolf Warrior 2,” which ends with the hero taking fellow passengers safely through a war zone in Africa as he holds a Chinese flag high. “It’s Chinese,” an armed fighter says. “Hold your fire.”

Two days later, the embassy reversed course, urging Chinese citizens not to display anything that would disclose their identity. Chinese people living in Ukraine advised fellow citizens not to make comments on social media that could jeopardise their security.

As the war drags on, and especially if Beijing calibrates its position in the face of an international backlash, the online pro-Russia sentiment in China could ebb. In the meantime, other internet users are getting impatient with the nationalists.

“Putin should enlist the Chinese little pinks and send them to the frontline,” wrote Weibo user @xinshuiqingliu. “They’re his die-hard fans and extremely brave fighters.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Related topics

Ukraine Russia China Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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