Chinese Citizens Rally Behind Ukraine, Despite Beijing's Close Ties to Russia

The Chinese government has chosen not to follow world leaders in rebuking Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Beijing has blamed Washington for the tensions and on Wednesday dismissed any possibility of joining Western sanctions against Moscow. Yet some in China have chosen to rally behind Kyiv instead.

For years, China has insisted that the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacrosanct. It's an argument it applies to independence-minded regions under its control, like Tibet, and extends to territories it wants to control, like Taiwan. It's perhaps why Beijing, despite its close ties to Moscow, hasn't recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and isn't likely to make an exception for the self-declared breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, even if they eventually vote to join the Russian Federation.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to emphasize this uneasy position on Saturday when he spoke virtually at the Munich Security Conference, saying that the "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity" of all states should be protected. "Ukraine is no exception," he said. That was three days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered ground forces into the Donbas on a "peacekeeping" mission.

China is a country with ambitions to lead global affairs in the United Nations-centered international system, but at an emergency session of the UN Security Council late on Monday, its response to Russia's moves on Ukraine were tame; it continued to maintain the appearance of neutrality while its diplomats took swipes at the West for allegedly fueling the tensions.

Back home, some Chinese citizens saw Russia's actions as contrary to their country's untouchable principles of international relations, swimming against a torrent of pro-Russian and anti-American sentiment to back Ukraine.

Russia and its state-owned media outlets have a large social media presence on Weibo, China's main social media service, which reported more than 570 million active monthly users last year. The Russian Embassy has a verified account with nearly 400,000 followers, while Ukraine's account is nearly 10 times smaller at 45,000 followers. But this difference wasn't apparent when major changes unfolded in eastern Ukraine this week.

Moscow's social media post about the recognition of Ukraine's rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk had received 28,000 likes and 4,100 comments at the time of publication. Kyiv's response condemning Putin had been liked nearly 800,000 times, drawing 39,000 responses in the crowded comment section.

Many Weibo users remain unsympathetic toward Ukraine over its ambition to join NATO; others were critical of the U.S.'s role in the crisis. Among them, however, was a prominent minority that was critical of Russia, despite being overwhelmed by opposing replies.

"I support Ukraine! The invading Russian gangsters should get out of the Donbas and Crimea!" one user wrote. Another said: "I support Ukraine's safeguarding of national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Under the Russian Embassy's post, a commenter described Putin's recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as "openly splitting another country." A second described it as the action of "a bandit."

China Netizens Back Ukraine Against Russian Invasion
Youth groups protest Russia's military intervention in Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on February 22, 2022. In the days after Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to formally recognize Ukraine’s rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, China has attempted to appear neutral but a minority of Chinese citizens have voiced support for Kyiv online. Omer Messinger/Getty Images

While China is actively avoiding any reprimand of Moscow, all signs point to its continuing to disassociate itself from regions wanting to declare their own independence.

One user debating the suitability of China's current position of silence wrote: "What if China sends the wrong signal in this case. How can its own territorial integrity be guaranteed in the future? It's best to look at these on a case-by-case basis. After all, China and Russia are only temporary 'partners.'"

A second said: "China and Putin just signed a joint statement. Who knew Putin would go and recognize their independence? China needs to immediately distance itself from Putin and absolutely can't support this. Support means giving up on Taiwan."

Another said: "[China] should join the sanctions. Unilateral declarations of independence are not acceptable. [China] must make this position clear to the world."

In the days after Russian soldiers and armor rolled into eastern Ukraine, China has continued to describe the situation as "complex" and requiring further dialogue and negotiation. Meanwhile, the U.S., U.K. and European Union have all announced sanctions. On Weibo, a short joke has been doing the rounds:

"When a small country and another small country go to war, the UN mediates and the war is gone.

"When a small country and a big country go to war, the UN meditates and the small country is gone.

"When a big country and another big country go to war, the UN mediates and the UN is gone."