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Russia in the Eyes of the Chinese Social Media Users

Image Source: Joshua Fernandez/Unsplash

The Chinese internet discourse reveals that while Russia is mostly supported in its war against Ukraine, the views of China’s northern neighbor are more diverse than usually recognized.

Two years have passed since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The make-believe optimism of Western allies has slowly transformed into a pessimistic crawl of arms shipments and political assurances. Ukraine, having failed in its counteroffensive, is grasping at straws. 

In this difficult situation, there is again talk of China in the corridors of Kiev as Ukraine’s leaders are no longer dismissing Beijing’s peace mediation plans outright. Although this is admittedly a distant prospect, China’s perception of Russia and its aggression towards Ukraine may be of importance once all other options are exhausted. 

What do Chinese internet discussions reveal about the public’s views of the conflict in Ukraine? The following is an analysis of Russia’s image among Chinese netizens based on 25 articles and around 2800 accompanying comments on the popular news and social media platform JinRi Toutiao (timespan June 9, 2021 – March 8, 2024).

‘Inevitable victory’ Narrative

Arguably the most dominant narrative among the Chinese social media users regarding the war in Ukraine shows unquestionable support to Russia. Comments like “Russia must win” and “Russia will not fail” are prevalent. This narrative glorifies Putin and Russia’s military might and believes that Russia’s victory is inevitable. But it is also superficial and entails many historical delusions.

Putin is often believed to be cunning, wise and heroic, but also kind and well meaning. He is called Putin the Great (Pujing dadi), which could just as well be translated to Emperor Putin. He is esteemed as a strongman (qiangren), like Stalin and Peter the Great. It is believed that Russia is invincible whenever it has such a leader, echoing a social Darwinist belief that “only the strong will survive.” This sub-narrative mirrors China’s own propaganda to justify Xi Jinping’s move from collective leadership to strongman rule which may explain its popularity.

For the Chinese netizens, the second reason to feel optimistic about Russia’s prospects is the character of its people. This sub-narrative depicts Russians as “fighting people” (zhandou minzu), “who do not know fear nor are they afraid to bring sacrifices in fighting the enemy.” The Russians are believed to hold together and be of the same mind (wanzhong yixinlike one heart) when in difficulty, and would rather die than give in. In one article, it is suggested that “no state has the courage to fight a country where all people are up in arms” and “have the spirit of martial arts” (shangwu jingshen).

The third sub-narrative in this branch depicts Russia as a vast, wealthy and resource-rich country that cannot be vanquished. Russia has it all to win the war, it is maintained, even table salt is “the best quality in the world” there. Some netizens claim that Russia has been strong for over 500 years, even stronger than China during the Han and Tang dynasties. This, says one comment, “is almost like a miracle.” Napoleon and Hitler’s failures are drawn upon to give examples of Russia’s invincibility. Russia’s enemies viewed Russians as barbarians (manzu) and underestimated their strength, so “Russia has become their grave.” Such examples imply that Russia will re-emerge as a dominant power, for the victory over the West is predetermined.

‘The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend’

The second large narrative group supports Russia as a strategic ally of China. It is clear to many netizens that if China is to prevail in the global strategic competition, Moscow and Beijing must stick together. Occasionally, Russia and China are compared to two tigers on a mountaintop fighting the lions of Europe and the US, borrowing a narrative element from Chinese folklore. One comment states forthright that “The US is determined to kill two birds with one stone, Russia and China,” while others express gratitude towards Russia for having taken the fight with Washington upon themselves.

The prevalent emotion in this narrative is fear, and the key question reads: What if Russia will lose? “If Russia fails, all countries must bow to the supremacy of the US” notes one comment, and adds that if it were to happen “the unscrupulous US could suppress China.” Even if some commenters admit that Russia can pose a threat to China, there is no doubt in the minds of many that the main enemy is the West. One such comment notes that “some people are worried that a strong Russia is bad, but I am more worried about what happens when Russia integrates with the West and becomes a NATO member.” 

Fear is also present in those comments that speak of nuclear cataclysm. Some are certain that nuclear weapons will be used and envisage doom for all, failing to differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Such a somber mood is characteristic of comments like “If Russia loses, a nuclear war will break out and there will be no winner,” or “If Russia loses, humanity may perish. There is no winner in a battle between nuclear powers.”

Aside from fear, this narrative is characterized by pragmatism and the need to focus on fighting the West, whatever the cost. The word “ally” is barely mentioned, though, as the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is described in terms of opportunism and inevitability. One comment notes that “there is no everlasting friendship, just temporary interests.” Even so, the need to cooperate with Russia is prevalent and self-evident, even at the cost of historical grievances. “At this point, we cannot think of the long game,” says one commenter, “As long as the US does not retreat from the first island chain, China and Russia must stand together, regardless of the historical humiliation.” 

Russia was of course one of many colonial powers that turned parts of China into its extraterritorial possessions, and this fact is apparently not lost on the Chinese netizens. Here is another example: “For now, they [Russia and China] are comrades in the same trench. No matter how much ‘grudges and hatred’ they had in the past, this must be put aside for the time being as we must fight the enemy together.” Given the importance of national humiliation in China’s collective identity it is likely that such arguments to sideline historical grievances on pragmatic grounds do not come easy for some commenters. 

In sum, in this narrative, Russia is not solely a positive actor nor is it invincible. Albeit Russia is a strategic partner to China in its fight against the “hegemony” of the US and a provider of much-needed resources, many Chinese netizens recognize that partnership with Russia comes with a historical baggage which is tolerated only to fend off greater ‘evil’.

Russia as a Threat

The third narrative sees Russia and/or its war in Ukraine as a threat to China’s interests. Here we can discern two sub-narratives. The first calls for a reasonable approach to international relations and believes that China should not align itself with Russia. “It is dangerous to be tied to a chariot together with Russia,” reads one comment. Behind this sub-narrative lurks a fear that the fall of Russia may also bring down China and hence Beijing should stress diplomatic independence and “take its fate into its own hands.”

Whereas the first sub-narrative is concerned about loss of face or diplomatic independence, the other sub-narrative in this branch considers Russia a direct military threat. “Do you really think that Russia is our true friend?,” asks one comment with blatant and not uncommon sarcasm. Others state that “a too strong Russia is not good for us” or that “a weak Russia is in the interests of China.” Behind such comments, one again recognizes the fact that Russia is a historic rival for China, if not an enemy, and that Russia may become a threat once again. This leads to reluctance to seeing Russia as a potential partner against Western “hegemony.”

Some comments in this sub-narrative stand out in particular. One draws a parallel between Russia and Mao Zedong by stating that “Russia and Mao remain always the gravest threats to China! […] What the Motherland and the people of the world need is a half-dead Russia. If it is strong, Motherland will not be peaceful.” Connecting Mao to Russia is interesting for it opens a door to critique CCP’s role in China’s history. Rare comments even compare Russia to Japan, the foremost nemesis in China’s historical memory. For example, one comment notes that “the West wants money, but Russia and Japan want our land and lives. We must be ready.” This comparison makes sense only because Russia and Japan share a border with China and are therefore strategic rivals capable of threatening China’s integrity. One commenter characterizes Japan and Russia as “two ambitious wolves.” Comparisons like this leave no doubt that Russia is considered a serious threat by some Chinese netizens.

Yet other comments go one step further and call for China to take back the lands in Siberia’s east. Popular maps from the Yuan or Qing Dynasty shared online depict the land of East Siberia, lost to Russia in the late 19th century, as Chinese. Some comments advocate buying back these lands – “how much can Siberia be sold for?” – and multiple comments call for taking Siberia back by force – “take back all lost territories!” “I suggest that China’s territory should be based on the Yuan dynasty, when the territory was very large,” notes one commenter, and another adds, “when Old Pu [Putin] dies, and Russia disintegrates, Siberia will become a satellite country of a great power in the East [China].” But if Russia is strong, it is argued, “there is no hope to get Siberia back.” The boldest claims in this sub-narrative do not limit themselves to Siberia. Also Alaska, Japan and Mongolia are considered to belong to China. One comment even insists that “The Ural Mountains are the dividing line between China and Russia.”

What Does It All Mean for the Ukrainians?

Many of the opinions outlined above reflect Moscow’s propaganda. This is not surprising given that Beijing and Moscow have agreed to mirror each other’s media narratives. Support for Ukraine is uncommon, as are pessimistic depictions of the war. China’s social media users generally harbor a strong belief in Russia’s victory, reflected in mostly short comments like “Support Russia!”, “Russia must win,” and “Russia cannot fail.”

That being said, China’s social media is not monolithic and not everything on the Russo-Ukrainian war is copied from Moscow’s playbook. A case in point is the notion highlighting Russia’s impending weaknesses and “collapse from within” or maintaining that “Russia has lost already,” indicating that, perhaps, some narratives popular in the Western social media have reached China as well. And, of course, all comments depicting Russia as a historic enemy or a potential military threat clearly deviate from the official line.

The most apparent omission is the fact that Chinese netizens do not like to talk about the overall international security structure. One would expect that Russia’s help in bringing down the international order devised by the West after WWII forms a part of the pragmatic narrative. Yet, while animosity against the “hegemony” of the United States is widespread, it is not always (or not even typically) tied to the broader question of Western-led international order.

What is interesting from the European point of view is that some Chinese see their relations with the EU as separate from the contest with the US and express hope that the Sino-EU relations will improve. For instance, one comment calls for China to “unite with the EU to check the US imperialists.” Still, a more common view is that the EU is part of the West, under the thump of Washington and deserves similar contempt. 

Whether the view from the grass-root level has any impact on Sino-Russian relations and Beijing’s efforts to broker a peace deal is difficult to predict. It is a matter of debate to what extent public opinion can force CCP’s hand in its foreign policy decisions. Keeping in mind that the methodological limitations of this analysis hardly allow broad generalizations, however, it seems safe to conclude that at this moment the public stands firmly behind the government. And even if this changes, Beijing’s official policies will likely not.

Written by

Urmas Hõbepappel

Urmas Hõbepappel is an Analyst at the Asia Centre of the University of Tartu, Estonia.