Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week, Chinese social media, usually a controlled space, is rife with conflicting comments about Ukraine. Censors have deleted thousands of posts — many containing vulgar sexual remarks about Ukrainian women — along with the accounts from which they originated.
A wide variety of comments are emerging hourly on the chatting platform WeChat; the Douyin video app, or Chinese TikTok; and Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
Some social media users are asking the Chinese government to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the Ukrainian crisis to seize Taiwan. China regards the self-ruled island as a breakaway province, even though it has its own flag, currency, military and democratic institutions. The Chinese government has said it is ready to bring about a reunification with Taiwan, even if force is required.
Chinese social media is also witnessing an outpouring of support for Russia and criticism of the U.S. over its support for Ukraine. A small number of people are asking why Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to interfere in the affairs of another country by urging Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine to revolt against their local governments.
Significantly, some commenters are asking why the Chinese government did not stand by its ally Russia during a recent United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution to condemn Russia's attack on Ukraine. China, India and United Arab Emirates chose to abstain from voting, a neutral stance.
Commenters have also ridiculed Ukraine for supposedly letting the U.S. make decisions for it.
China's motives questioned
Along with the posts that are vulgar or praise violence, the Chinese censors have been removing expressions of anti-war sentiment, including an open letter circulated by several academicians calling for an end to the war.
"It is not an easy situation for the government. It cannot support the war. But it is also uncomfortable about intense parading of anti-war sentiment because this has implications on the political situation in Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong," said a Chinese university professor who asked not to be named.
The state-controlled Global Times suggested in its Chinese-language edition that anti-Beijing separatists are behind some of the anti-war postings. "Some people surmise that clandestine 'Taiwan separatists,' 'Hong Kong separatists' and other forces are the ones making waves in public sentiment and public discourse on the Ukraine situation," wrote Sun Jiashan, a researcher at the Chinese National Academy of Arts.
Yet the country's internet censor, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), initially stayed on the sidelines of the debate, allowing some posts questioning Moscow's policy to remain up. This reflects a wider dilemma for Chinese authorities as their ally, Russia, supports and endorses a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine while carrying out an unprovoked attack on a neighbor.
"China overall is following events but not taking a clear stand, and why should it? For China this war is a lose-lose proposition," said Francesco Sisci, a senior research associate at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
"If Russia wins, it gets stronger, and China will feel the weight again of the northern neighbor. If it loses, China will be more isolated," Sisci told VOA. "Plus, it didn't trust Russia to begin with. Still, China's official stand is strongly anti-American, and [as seen] from Beijing, this war was set up by the U.S., which pushed Russia around."
Nevertheless, the CAC and social media platforms have weeded out thousands of postings containing objectionable comments and videos. The agency said it was cracking down on "self-media" — social media accounts held by independent content producers who share irresponsible political ideas. It also said it wants to control the distribution of information across all internet platforms to end "disruption to the order of internet broadcasts."
Douyin said it had removed 3,500 videos and 12,100 comments related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is investigating objectionable posts, such as those calling for the "capture of beautiful Ukrainian women," spreading inappropriate values, and harming the platform's atmosphere.
Backlash in Ukraine
Other postings suggest the Chinese government's posture has prompted anger toward Chinese students studying in Ukraine. Several of them have cited hostility from local residents and expressed concern for their safety.
The Chinese Embassy in Kyiv initially asked its citizens to clearly identify their nationality while traveling in Ukraine. It later changed the order to say that they should stay indoors and not identify their nationality until further instructions are issued.
"The Ukrainians are going through difficulties. … We need to understand them and not provoke them," the embassy told Chinese citizens in Ukraine.
The official Xinhua News Agency also joined the government in urging social media users to "discuss and present in a reasonable way" and criticized those who "spoke inappropriately."