Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has mostly tried to publicly distance itself from the carnage of war without criticizing its leader, President Vladimir V. Putin. While this is still largely true, observers on the Chinese mainland have noticed in recent days that their country’s state-run news media juggernaut — like the government itself — seems to be changing its tune subtly. tone on the war.
The focus is a little less on Russia’s military power, observers say, and a little more on peace talks and the civilian toll of Russian strikes. Russian state propaganda has also fallen in popularity on Weibo, a tightly censored Chinese social media network. On Thursday, Weibo’s only top trending article on the war was a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the United States Congress.
Shi Yinghongprofessor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in an interview on Friday that he had observed subtle changes in China’s official discourse on Ukraine in recent days.
“It’s based on a change in public opinion” on the Chinese mainland, Professor Shi said.
At the start of the war, the coverage of “Xinwenlianbo”, an evening news program of the public television channel CCTV, focused mainly on the domination of the Russian army and its operation in Ukraine. This week, however, there have been more images of Mr Zelensky – and more direct mention of the Russian attacks.
A similar shift was evident in the coverage of CGTN America, the global arm of the Chinese state broadcaster.
“The corpses of people killed by Russian shelling lay across much of Ukraine”, CGTN America said on Twitter Friday. “With the number of people fleeing the conflict running into the millions and Russian bombings continuing, many fear the humanitarian catastrophe is far from over.”
Such messages may not indicate a change in Chinese foreign policy.
“What China sympathizes with is not Ukraine as a sovereign nation, but the Ukrainian people,” Professor Shi said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 – and even as Russian forces have turned to bombing towns and villages – Chinese officials have blamed the United States for the war and echoed M Putin criticizing NATO. Chinese diplomats and state media have also amplified Kremlin propaganda and a conspiracy theory about Pentagon-funded biological weapons labs in Ukraine.
On Friday, as media in Europe and North America this week covered the Russian bombing of a theater in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a Chinese state broadcaster aired a report on what he called a Ukrainian missile attack in Donetsk, a Russian-backed separatist region of Ukraine.
Hours before Chinese leader Xi Jinping was due to discuss the war in Ukraine with President Joe Biden on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters that the government had been “deeply saddened by the increasing number of civilians”. victims and refugees reported by the media.
“The top priority for all parties is to stop the fighting, maintain restraint, ensure the safety and basic humanitarian needs of civilians, and prevent a larger-scale humanitarian crisis,” Zhao said during the meeting. of a regular press briefing in Beijing.
These comments largely corresponded to a larger pattern. In recent weeks, the Chinese government has sought to soften its tone slightly on the war by expressing grief over civilian casualties and calling for an end to the war – but without blaming Russia or expressing support for NATO. .