China Censors Appear To Ban Anti-Russia Media Content on Ukraine Invasion

While China continues to walk a fine line during the Ukraine crisis by attempting to appear neutral, its media sphere has been less reserved and seemed to issue guidelines forbidding anti-Russian content this week.

The country's main social media service, Weibo, a news outlet with nearly 6.5 million followers, accidentally shared censorship instructions from its verified account before removing the text moments later. Horizon News, which produces video content under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) newspaper Beijing News, posted what looked to be guidelines from an unidentified supervisor.

"Effective immediate for Ukraine-related Weibo posts…do not publish content that is unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western," the instructions read. "Show me all copy before publishing."

Responses in the comment sections under each post were to be strictly monitored and controlled, according to the guidelines, which were spotted by University of Vienna professor Ling Li.

"First show featured [comments] and then allow suitable comments. After publication, it is the responsibility of each poster to really pay attention to the comments. Keep an eye on every post for at least two days," said the instructions, which appeared to be addressed to staff members with access to the news outlet's social media account. They were ordered only to use hashtags that had been approved by the big three state news organizations—CCP paper People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency and state broadcaster CCTV.

Newsweek wasn't able to independently verify the source of the Horizon News guidelines; it remains unclear whether they were top-down instructions or self-censorship by the state-owned news portal. But China's tight control over its domestic information environment is not news and it finds it effective in politically sensitive moments when Beijing needs to control the official framing of crises like the one unfolding in Ukraine, in spite of what its diplomats might say.

China Media Censors Anti-Russia Content
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4, 2022. The Putin-Xi meeting resulted in a joint-statement in which Beijing backed Moscow against NATO, and which preceded Putin’s decision to recognize eastern Ukraine’s rebel regions and send troops into the Donbas on February 21, 2022. ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

On social media platforms popular in the West—most notably Twitter—Chinese state-affiliated journalists openly back Moscow over Kyiv, which they portray as having been led astray by Washington and its NATO allies, and pushed into the path of inevitable conflict with Russia. China's official position, however, is a bit subtler than that.

This week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry faced questions about Beijing's response, after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized Ukraine's breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on Monday, and then ordered troops into the Donbas. While blaming the United States for fueling tensions with arms transfers to Kyiv, and by exaggerating the threat of war, China has continued to describe the situation in Ukraine as "complex" and repeated calls for dialogue.

The Chinese government remains noncommittal about whether it would support or condemn Moscow's moves, which many see Beijing as having tacitly endorsed with the China-Russia joint statement released on February 4, when Moscow backed Beijing's security concerns in the Indo-Pacific in return for support against NATO. A buildup of troops on Ukraine's borders was already happening at the time, but it's not clear China believed the deployment of Russian ground forces into eastern Ukraine was a certainty.

On Tuesday, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed concern about the "deteriorating" situation in Ukraine during a call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The principles of the United Nations Charter should be upheld' he said, perhaps hinting at some sympathy with Kyiv. Earlier the same day, the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine issued a security notice that advised citizens to stockpile food and water, but it has so far resisted the urge to pull its diplomats out of the country.

The close relationship between Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping is no secret, yet some observers see Russia as having put China in an uneasy position with its territorial quest in eastern Ukraine, a move that is inconsistent with the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, both of which Beijing regards as sacrosanct. Beijing still doesn't officially recognize Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Russia's latest intervention wasn't universally welcomed in China either.

Many outspoken Weibo users sympathize with Moscow's security concerns but find its territorial expansion and its recognition of Ukraine's rebel regions difficult circles to square. It would doubtless alarm China were its own wantaway regions or provinces to take any measures to loosen bonds with Beijing.