Joyce Chan: Hi Maria. I want to talk to you today about how China has reacted to the Russia-Ukraine war since February in the media. To start off, can you outline how China has handled the public discussion of the Russia-Ukraine war since its outbreak and how has it evolved over time?
Maria Repnikova: There have been some interesting trends in how China handled the media and public opinion and the coverage of the war. The first theme I found interesting is the underreporting of the war in China. News about the Ukraine war does not have the same prominence as in Western media outlets, where it is often the top story. In Chinese media, the news has been buried at the bottom of the newscast, not presented as a prime story. This seems to me a deliberate strategy since the war is a contentious crisis and because of China’s delicate position in the war, and there is a fear that overreporting would create room for more questions.
A second thread is in the domestic context. The pro-Russia stance becomes more apparent in the coverage of this war that sways from the neutrality that China states in its official messaging internationally. For example, we see Chinese media echoing Russian narratives and perspectives, by incorporating a lot of footage from Russian media sources. I was looking at Xinhua news coverage for the entirety of the war and found a disproportionate number of sources that came from the Russian side in discussing the conflict, similarly for television coverage on CCTV.
Other studies done by CNN and the German Marshall Fund have found similar trends of echoing Russian footage and perspectives by both state media and official spokespeople. So, we see some merging of a pro-Russian stance between China and Russia in terms of how they present this conflict. One big point of convergence between China and Russia is the framing of the war as the responsibility of NATO or the West, a lot of anti-Western messaging, which I think to this day remains an important thread. That has been prominent in nationalistic discussions and in social media. We see how Russia itself explains this war as being pushed by NATO into this conflict and NATO has overmilitarized the region at the border. Chinese state media has taken up a similar threat in different wordings. But nonetheless it was interesting to observe the convergence with the Russian narrative.
Another aspect is the disinformation rhetoric, which has not been adapted in full scale in Chinese media, though a few themes have come up, such as the conspiracy theory about US biolabs in Ukraine, which some Chinese state media and government spokespeople like Zhao Lijian reposted online.
Aside from the underreporting of massacres, like the one in Bucha, we see the media giving more room for Russian voices to explain and complicate the narrative, and trying to dilute the Western narrative about Russia being at fault in an unambiguous way. News reports would include discussion from both sides and mention the potential for further investigation showcasing that there is more to the story than what the West presents.
Joyce Chan: Do you think it’s fair to say that China is echoing Russian media?
Maria Repnikova: The idea that China echoes everything from Russia is overstated, because we don’t see Chinese state media arguing Russia’s war is justified and there is no endorsement of the war. We do see some perspectives from Ukraine. English-language media like CGTN and some Xinhua articles in English are covering some Ukrainian voices. More recently, we see a bit more openness towards discussing more pro-Ukraine or Ukrainian perspectives on social media.
So, the reporting is not completely static and also not unanimously pro-Russia, but rather involves a more selective, opportunistic adaptation of some Russian footage and narratives. These are some of the important themes I see throughout this coverage.
Joyce Chan: I want to hone in on your last comment about a “selective” adaptation. Do you think there are certain criteria or red lines in the selection of Ukrainian perspectives in Chinese media, for example on CGTN or in online media?
Maria Repnikova: It is hard to know the exact line without interviewing the journalists to try to understand the rationale behind them. But just from observation, the most contentious issues like the massacre or Russia war crimes are still presented in a more two-sided way. Even though there is access to Ukrainian sources, Russian sources are still there to overwhelm the report. So, it seems Chinese media are not fully endorsing the Ukrainian perspective, but there are a few reports about damage by Russian shelling or people fleeing in the refugee crisis.
Broadly speaking, political but not so contentious topics have been reported a bit more openly, as opposed to topics where Russia is clearly portrayed as a war criminal and prime facilitator of this conflict, which tend to be avoided or somehow complicated. When it comes to the outcomes and implications of the war, these are also discussed with relatively more freedom and in more detail.
Joyce Chan: Now let us turn to this specific incident in March, where there was widespread coverage about a Chinese journalist who gained unprecedented access to report from the Russian frontline. How should we interpret this in terms of Chinese-Russian relations?
Maria Repnikova: The story is an example of disinformation spreading and China merging with Russia’s narratives and embedding journalists into Russian military operations. It is hard to understand the implications of this more broadly because it was only one journalist from one outlet. We didn’t see this replicating itself which suggests it was an opportunistic strategy, where this particular journalist made some connections on the ground and to get rare and unique footage, maybe to get a promotion or prominence professionally. If it was more organised, other outlets would try to do that as well.
Given the relatively close relations between Russia and China, it seems that Chinese media could potentially gain access to Russian state media or combat forces, to collaborate with them. But since it was only one example, so to me it seems more bottom-up and opportunistic, but I don’t know enough about this case to certify this, it is just my guess of what happened.
Joyce Chan: It seems to me a paradox that China is maintaining strategic ambiguity internationally but keeps a pro-Russian stance domestically. Can you comment on how this could have affected the Chinese public understanding of Russian relations, at least in the short term?
Maria Repnikova: It is quite hard to answer definitively with so few sources of access to public opinion. However, I can refer to a survey by the Carter Center that came up with pretty interesting numbers of Chinese public opinion, where the majority of respondents were in favour of supporting Russia in the war, and were buying into the conspiracy theories of the US biolabs in Ukraine.
The survey demonstrated that higher education, more consumption of official and social media seemed to yield more pro-Russia inklings, which suggest there is some kind of convergence between official propaganda and nationalistic patches of social media. We have also observed over the period of the war that the more powerful voices in social media have been more nationalistic and anti-Western and seem to dominate the discourse. Although this survey was conducted on a fraction of the population, it was able to show some correlation in this regard.
At the same time, quite a large proportion were pro-peace and in favour of facilitation of ending the war. So it’s interesting that they think it is the right thing to support Russia, but also should bring about a peaceful solution to end the war, which presents a slight contradiction, because Russia does not seem to be gearing up towards ending the war anytime soon. So, the Chinese public opinion does not seem so homogenous, but contains contradictory fractures in sentiment.
Joyce Chan: Following up on this, do you think the domestic reaction stems from the public desire to see China take a stronger role on the international stage?
Maria Repnikova: I guess there are many different ways that the public could be reacting. On the one hand, the domestic crisis of Covid-19 and the various restrictions that people are worried about might have played into how much the public really thinks about this war on a regular basis, especially if the story is underreported and citizens don’t receive the same coverage as elsewhere. Given this situation, it makes me wonder how much they are concerned about China taking a global stance.
On the other hand, considering the strong anti-Western sentiments expressed in the first weeks of the war, there is the question of whether the Chinese nationalist public could be upset about collaborating with the West, if it were to mediate the war, since siding with the West could be seen as a weakness. So, there is no clear-cut answer, but just different rationales to how the public opinion may be reacting.
Just imagine from the perspective of a Chinese citizen in lockdown, who is facing food shortages, job uncertainty and long-term economic slowdown. It is hard to blame the individual for not being as curious about Ukraine since they’re concerned about their own well-being and survival.
Joyce Chan: In this line of thought, what effect do you think the combination of food and energy security crises brought about by the war, along the Covid crisis, will have on the Chinese government’s degree of censorship overall?
Maria Repnikova: I guess overall in terms of contemporary Chinese media history, crisis events always were extremely sensitive and contentious. We see quite a bit of tightening when it comes to covering other types of stories because of a heightened sensitivity from the public. So I think it makes sense to think that China is restricting other discussions that may destabilise the Chinese government or distract it from the key goal of managing domestic politics if there is even more discussion of why they aren’t doing more about Ukraine – because it is not conducive to their governance. So I can see why a domestic crisis can push towards a more international sensitivity.
Another theme worth mentioning is . . . When I did fieldwork in Chinese media like about Xinhua news coverage of Russia and the US, I heard from various editors that Russia generally tends to be a censored topic, like the US, in the sense of presenting Russia in a positive light and covering Putin’s regime in a relatively neutral way. Protests against Putin, any acts of resistance or negative stories in Russia don’t tend to be covered in Chinese media, and much the same applies in Russian media for stories on China, so there is some solidarity in how they cover one another. That’s maybe part of the story of why it is so difficult for China to shift course.
Because if you present the Russian regime as losing and weak, the domestic politics have to be taken into account as well. There are many protests against the war in Russia, individual acts of resistance, rumors about Putin’s regime weakening and the economy staggering. If this very strong authoritarian regime is waning and potentially under risk, what does it say about the Chinese authoritarian regime? It may give people ideas about resistance and critique that may be directed towards China as well. So I think this phenomenon is something long-standing, in terms of how Russia is presented and how sensitive it is for China to complicate the Russia story for the Chinese audience.
Joyce Chan: Thank you. That is a very important insight. I was looking at your paper from 2018 about critical journalists in China and Russia and their varying methods of challenging authority. Your paper found that the Chinese pushed boundaries within the system, while the Russians enacted opposition. Does this still hold true today? Are Russian journalists surviving in the system or are they fleeing from Russia?
Maria Repnikova: That’s a great question. Since this paper was published, there has been a little more convergence between China and Russia in terms of information management and governance including critical journalists. Particularly in Russia, there is more tightening of space for what is permissible and investigative journalism. I think during the war, this space has really shrunk with the regime deliberately shutting down pretty much any outlet and most spaces basically, except for Telegram, which is still very active. But websites, television, and cable, like TV Rain, the only independent TV programme station, have been pushed out.
So in terms of whether the thesis holds true, we see on the one hand more shrinkage of critical or anti-war journalism in this context of Russia. At the same time, the journalists who are fleeing are setting up outposts for extraterritorial reporting. Some of them for instance are based in Latvia, like Meduza, where they are close to Russia but not in Russia.
They’re still sending reporters to Ukraine and reporting about the war. They write in Russian and their Telegram channel is not censored, so it is open and has a million followers. In some ways, even though their website is banned and it is not safe for their journalists to be in Russia, they can still report on Russia’s external activities like in Ukraine. Novaja Gaseta is another paper that was pushed to close, but they set up an office in Europe and are still reporting on the war. So we see this kind of effort.
Joyce Chan: Can they still reach Russian audiences from outside the country?
Maria Repnikova: There are several issues with that as well. One issue is whether or not they are reaching the mainstream Russian public, which I don’t think they are or were in the first place. So a million followers for the population of around 120 or 130 million in Russia is not a lot. The second weakness is the question of whether they can even re-enter Russia. Hopefully, once the war ends this can happen, but I’m not sure the regime will reopen those channels to journalists. It is very convenient for them to shrink that space to never reopen it again. Then, in that context, how do you report about Russia if you are not in Russia, so this creates a really big challenge. Especially since so many reporters have fled, they’re still trying their best to cover the war but beyond the war, it is very hard to cover all kinds of issues without being there. So I think this development is very systematic and damaging for the Russian critical journalism sphere.
Joyce Chan: So that has a long-term repercussion for the whole media landscape in Russia and for the Russian-speaking diaspora, I guess.
Maria Repnikova: I think so. They’re not completely shut off, and in the context of the war, they are doing amazing and meaningful coverage. But beyond the war, the space to report on Russia is very much shortened. How do you actually report about domestic politics or even Russia-Chinese politics? It would be interesting to see which Chinese companies are operating in Russia under the radar beyond the Western sanctions, like how much is China’s presence economically. That would require deeper investigation and would be really interesting, but very hard to do for these outlets who are not there. It’s just one example, but there are many, many stories that I am afraid will not be reported.
But I think the attitudes haven’t changed, in terms of what I discussed in the paper with Russian journalists being much more anti-regime. I think this has even sharpened now. They’re very outspoken, very political and anti-Putin. In that sense, we still see that sharp difference to Chinese journalists.
I’m sure, in China, some journalists also harbour very strongly critical and frustrated sentiments about the Covid policy and the regime, but we don’t see mainstream critical outlets. I don’t know what’s critical anymore in China, but let’s say, [something like] Caixin coming out to publish something radical. It is still very cautious, even more cautious than in the past. Part of it is probably just survival strategy, but we see some social media posts that are much more pressing or emotional. We see social media sentiments bursting out once in a while. And we see what’s possible if there’s no censorship. But once that is shut down, we see them being very cautious, and we see a very clouded picture.