In the month since Russia invaded his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has appeared in hundreds of news articles across China. In just the past week, his name has appeared in at least 71 articles in papers like Shanghai’s Liberation Daily (解放日报), Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News (羊城晚报), Zhejiang Daily (浙江日报), Beijing Youth Daily (北京青年报), and the Chongqing Morning Post (重庆晚报).
In many cases, these articles have been official releases from the state-run Xinhua News Agency, like a recent story published in Hubei’s commercial Chutian Metropolis Daily (楚天都市报), pictured further below, which reported on peace talks in Turkey. “Ukrainian President Zelensky said on [March] 29 that the signals emerging from the new round of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia were positive,” the report read. Not reported was what Zelensky said immediately after, that these signals “do not drown out the ruptures of Russian shells.” Nevertheless, Zelensky was there in the text, alongside his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
But Zelensky’s presence elsewhere in the Chinese media makes it that much more unusual that the Ukrainian president has been missing entirely from the People’s Daily, the newspaper that matters most when it comes to conveying the official line of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Through the buzz of coverage in China about the “Russia-Ukraine conflict,” the conspicuous absence of Zelensky from the Party’s flagship newspaper is a salient illustration of China’s alignment with Russia.
Zelensky has not been mentioned in the People’s Daily through the entire five-week course of the ongoing war in Ukraine. In fact, Zelensky has been mentioned just once in the People’s Daily since a July 14 report last year noting a call with Xi Jinping in which cooperation in fighting COVID-19 was mentioned but nothing whatsoever about Russia. That one mention was on January 5, 2022, when Xi Jinping sent Zelensky a congratulatory message on the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Xi spoke of the “healthy and stable development” of relations between China and Ukraine, of “mutual political trust” and “fruitful cooperation in various fields.” But there was no talk, apparently, of Russia.
Through November and December 2021, as Russia troops massed along the Ukrainian border – no Zelensky in the People’s Daily. Through January, as Russian troops arrived in Belarus for ostensible “military exercises” – no Zelensky in the People’s Daily. For the whole of February, as military maneuvers intensified in Russia and Belarus, and even as Putin’s “special military operation” began in eastern Ukraine – no Zelensky in the People’s Daily.
Putin, meanwhile, has been frequent and prominent news in the paper, with related mention of the “drastic situation in eastern Ukraine.” On February 26, as tanks were pushing toward Kyiv, Putin was front-page news. A piece next to the newspaper’s masthead reported Putin’s call with Xi Jinping, in which the Russian leader had showered praise on the Beijing Olympic Games (the story’s lede). Xi was quoted further down as reiterating “China’s respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.”
As recently as March 30, Putin was mentioned in a People’s Daily report on the hosting in Beijing of a forum called “China and Russia: Common Development and Modernization” (中国与俄罗斯：共同发展与现代化). Xia Baolong, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, gave the opening address at the event, attended by members of Russia’s Duma. Xia said, according to the paper, that “hand-in-hand development and common prosperity is the strategic choice and cooperation between China and Russia,” adding: “President Xi Jinping and President Putin have repeatedly stressed the need to promote a high level of mutual trust between China and Russia that can be constantly translated into cooperation results in various fields, benefiting the people of both countries.”