In the sixth week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, few have doubts about where China stands on Vladimir Putin’s war. The Chinese public, its opinions shaped by a highly regulated information environment, praises Putin as a strongman who is single-handedly standing up to the West’s bullying. But there are also those who see the folly in Beijing’s support for an occupying force.
To the casual observer, Weibo is awash with pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiment from government officials, users and state-owned media outlets alike. It’s difficult not to see public opinion on the platform, which reported more than 570 million active monthly users last year, as monolithic, unless you know where to look.
Not all are brave enough to speak out in the middle of such lopsided discourse on China’s main social media website, but a significant group has gathered under the Weibo account of the Ukrainian Embassy, a rare safe space where netizens express their support for Kyiv and their condemnation of Moscow, through quiet likes and comments.
On this otherwise obscure page, most disapprove of Russia’s military campaign to topple the leadership in Kyiv. Many see it as violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, sacred principles the Chinese government has drilled into its population in the name of safeguarding its own territorial interests. This week there is little discussion about the West, the United States or NATO—the focus is on war crimes.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s embassy in Beijing shared a report about the atrocities in Bucha, the northwest city of Kyiv formerly occupied by Russian troops. When Putin’s forces withdrew to regroup for another offensive, Ukrainian authorities said they discovered hundreds of slain civilians, many who they say had been tortured and executed.
The Kremlin denies any involvement, but their attempts to refute the charges using open-source material have so far been unsuccessful.
Under a subtitled news segment featuring Deborah Haynes of Sky News, hundreds of China’s Weibo users decried the scenes in Bucha. Several pro-Moscow voices appeared too but were quickly drowned out by those sympathetic with Kyiv.
“Putin’s Russia is heinous. Putler must face the guillotine,” read the third most-liked reply. “The Russian forces will lose; Yellow Russia must die,” another said, referring to the former Russian Empire’s plan to seize Manchuria, now northeastern China, then controlled by the Qing dynasty.
Near the top, a commenter described Putin as a “war criminal,” while another called the scenes in Bucha “genocide.” The fifth most-liked reply to the Ukrainian Embassy read: “I support the choice of the Ukrainian people and call on the international community to uphold justice and severely punish the aggressors.”
The embassy’s post had accumulated more than 5,500 likes and nearly 1,000 comments at the time of publication, roughly seven hours after it was shared. An earlier post by the Russian Embassy, seeking to refute the claims of war crimes in Bucha, received more than 6,600 likes and 1,200 comments in just under 30 hours.
Ukraine hasn’t dominated the information space in China in the same way it has in the West, particularly on platforms such as Twitter. But its engagement with users has been consistent and its numbers not far from Russia’s, despite having five times fewer followers at 113,000 to 580,000. Ukraine’s pocket of Weibo supports have also been a constant since the early days of the war.
In the days before the invasion, when Russia’s follower count was nearly 10 times that of Ukraine’s—around 400,000 versus 45,000, respectively—Chinese netizens were already using the page to silently support Kyiv over Moscow. A post by Ukraine denouncing Putin’s recognition of the rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas received many times more likes than Russia’s announcement of the president’s new decree.
As of Tuesday, Russia’s post on February 22 had more than 47,000 likes, while Ukraine’s condemnation of the move had received 836,000—more than 17 times that amount.
Weibo commenters continue to raise concerns about the humanitarian crisis and back Ukrainian troops as they seek to expel the invaders. In an environment where popular Chinese pundits regularly take up Russian talking points, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it a parallel universe, whose existence is almost necessitated by the fact that Beijing continues to insist it’s a neutral party in the conflict.