China’s massive information control apparatus is typically focused on distorting the information that Chinese citizens are able to access about their own country, with foreign affairs relegated to a secondary level of importance. Yet over the past seven weeks, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s apparent decision to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has fueled a full-blown campaign to shape public opinion and internet chatter about events unfolding thousands of miles away.
Within the deep toolbox of controls available to the CCP regime, three tactics appear to be playing an outsized role in this campaign: flagship state media echoing Russian state disinformation, manipulation of social media hashtags and trending topics, and censorship of alternative viewpoints and information sources.
The effort has effectively built an isolating wall around China, leaving Chinese news consumers with an image of one of this century’s most significant geopolitical events that is drastically different from the version presented to other populations around the world.
A Three-Pronged Strategy for Distorting Reality
In the weeks since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, three of China’s state media outlets – the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily, the national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), and the nationalistic tabloid Global Times – have been particularly active in feeding Russian state propaganda to Chinese news consumers. Rather than simply promoting Moscow’s official views or statements, they have disseminated content that includes multiple outright falsehoods. For example, they have aired claims that Ukrainian soldiers surrendered their weapons, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fled Kyiv, and that Russian forces have struck only military targets.
Almost as notable as the lies that have been propagated are the basic facts that are missing. There is no acknowledgment that Moscow initiated the war by invading a sovereign neighbor in blatant violation of international law. No airtime is granted to Zelenskyy’s charismatic daily video appearances, which have gone viral among global audiences. Also absent are the detailed accounts of atrocities in the Kyiv region that emerged after the retreat of occupying Russian troops. Multiple CCTV news broadcasts – including the prime-time program that is still watched by tens of millions of Chinese each evening – made almost no mention of the civilian deaths reported in the town of Bucha in early April, for example. Instead, they focused on topics like successful Russian military strikes and U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine.
The CCP regime has aided the dissemination of pro-Kremlin propaganda by manipulating hashtags and trending topics on domestic social media platforms. There have been numerous examples of Chinese state outlets creating hashtags linked to disinformation narratives that are then aggressively amplified. In the early days of the war, CCTV created a hashtag asserting that Zelenskyy had fled Kyiv, which was reportedly viewed 510 million times. More recently, after the Russian government announced that it would host an anti-fascism conference in August – part of its disinformation narrative that the invasion was necessary to rid Ukraine of Nazis – CCTV posted a related story and created a hashtag on the Weibo social media platform. Within 24 hours, it had reportedly garnered 650 million views and 90 media citations.
Even as they keep their algorithms and trending topics aligned with the government’s priorities, staff at Chinese social media platforms have been busy deleting content that departs from the official line. Among other targets, they have removed posts and open letters by prominent individuals within China who directly questioned the government’s support for Moscow, criticized Putin, voiced support for Ukraine, or decried nationalist netizens’ disregard for China’s own historical suffering at the hands of foreign invaders. In at least two cases, celebrities who called Putin “crazy,” urged followers to pray for peace, or posted photos of anti-war protests in Russia had their Weibo accounts suspended or restricted. The two individuals, former talk-show host Jin Xing and actress Ke Lan, consequently lost their ability to reach 13.6 million and 2.9 million followers, respectively. Some militantly pro-Moscow posts have also been taken down, but the predominant narrative on the censored and distorted Chinese internet is pro-Kremlin, anti-U.S., and anti-NATO.
Censors have similarly moved to suppress first-hand reporting by Chinese residents in Ukraine, including complaints related to the government’s delayed assistance with their evacuation from the war zone. Wang Jixian, a technology worker posting videos from the city of Odesa, found that his social media accounts across multiple platforms, including WeChat, had been shut down. In an emotional video posted to YouTube, Wang angrily lamented the fact that he no longer had a way to communicate directly with his parents, asking friends to alert them that he was still alive. Individual netizen posts and videos on Jinri Toutiao, a widely used content aggregator owned by ByteDance, have been deleted for depicting Russian anti-war protests.
These information-control tactics closely match a leaked set of official media directives from March 3. One directive specifically indicates that foreign news reports cannot be republished, and that social media platforms must “strictly control” commentary that challenges official statements, involves “incitement of Sino-Russian antagonism,” references historical invasions of China, or involves “public anti-war declarations.” This and another directive both enforce a state media monopoly on war-related hashtags and trending topics, noting for instance that “without exception, existing hashtags started by individuals, self-published media, and commercial platforms must not be included in trending topics, and new hashtags are strictly prohibited.”
Voices of Dissent and Resistance
While the space for alternative perspectives on the war in Ukraine is clearly under heavy pressure, some examples of both vocal and quiet resistance have emerged.
Among traditional media, a small number of outlets have referred fairly explicitly to Moscow’s responsibility for the invasion. Xinmin Weekly, a commercial publication in Shanghai, published a March 7 human interest story about a Chinese student’s escape from Ukraine that described how Russian forces had suddenly “launched a war” against Ukraine. Caixin, a financial publication that is widely recognized for its investigative journalism, ran a cover-story analysis that framed the war as a full-scale Russian invasion and published photo galleries showing destroyed buildings.
On February 26, five Chinese historians published an open letter condemning the war and directly challenging the Chinese government’s position. They declared that “as a country that was once also ravaged by war … we sympathize with the suffering of the Ukrainian people.” The authors also bluntly rejected efforts to justify the invasion: “Regardless of Russia’s myriad reasons and all kinds of excuses, the use of force to invade a sovereign country is trampling on the norms of international relations based on the U.N. Charter.”
In early March, the Carter Center’s U.S.-China Perceptions Monitor published a commentary in English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a scholar at several state-affiliated institutions in China. The piece analyzed the long-term implications of the war for China and the world, warning that “China cannot be tied to Putin” and should “choose the mainstream position in the world.” Both commentaries were censored in China, and the website of the U.S.-China Perceptions Monitor was subsequently blocked, but not before its original Chinese post received over 185,000 views.
More subtle expressions of skepticism about the official line and support for Ukraine have also appeared. Journalist Xifan Yang discovered that four out of the top five brooch pins on e-commerce site Taobao had a Ukrainian flag theme. Users’ comments on the items included statements like “Long live the people of Ukraine!” Researcher Ling Li collected multiple examples of Chinese netizen commentary that departed from the official narrative, including comments like “one can be indifferent to wars but should at the very least not advocate wars, or worse, praise invaders,” which received over 6,900 likes. Even a video by Hollywood star and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, aimed at countering the Kremlin’s propaganda among Russian audiences, was spotted circulating on WeChat with subtitles in Chinese.
A Window on Leaders’ Views, a Barrier Against the World
Given the opacity of the Chinese leadership, it is difficult to determine the exact motivations driving the regime’s support for Putin’s war. It could be part of an effort to tilt the international balance of power, to weaken the United States, to set the stage for a future CCP takeover of Taiwan, or simply to save Xi Jinping from embarrassment over the very public partnership with Putin that he trumpeted in early February, before the invasion. What is clear is that the domestic media narrative is much more reflective of CCP leaders’ views than the superficially more neutral and mild public comments of Chinese diplomats. Once Xi and his cohort decided that it was strategically beneficial to the CCP, if not to China, to throw their weight behind Putin, the party’s information control apparatus was jolted into action.
As the war in Ukraine continues, much is at stake for the cause of freedom, peace, and international order. But regardless of the outcome on the battlefield, the conflict has already resulted in a reinforced CCP propaganda structure and a wider information gap between many in China and the rest of the world.