By Tomoko Ako, March 28, 2023
China and Ukraine have maintained good relations since the establishment of diplomatic relations, and China has been in frequent contact with Ukraine since the start of the Ukraine war. China criticizes other countries’ interventions on the Taiwan and ethnic minority issues, and it should therefore not tolerate Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. However, China and Russia have similar authoritarian regimes, and the need to resist the democratic camp has compelled them to work together.
Much of the narrative in China’s official media about the Russia-Ukrainian war is biased toward Russia’s point of view, and disinformation is disseminated to discredit the United States. There are Chinese journalists, intellectuals and citizens who are struggling to get and spread reliable and meaningful information. Japan and Canada should collaborate more to support such Chinese people with conscience and expertise.
China has turned into a powerful surveillance state
I was stationed in China as a research fellow of the Embassy of Japan in China, when the Summer Olympics was held in Beijing in 2008. China’s economy was doing very well at that time, compared with when the Beijing Winter Olympics was held in 2022.
While the Hu Jintao administration (2002-2012) had a strong economy, it also had various problems. For example, the so-called “petition villages” at the Beijing South Railway Station featured a large number of petitioners from rural areas who had built tent huts in areas awaiting redevelopment. However, the economy was growing, so even with these problems, many people envisioned a bright future. Also, the Chinese government’s repression was not as severe as it is today.
Currently, such petition villages have been wiped out, and the spaces in which human rights defence lawyers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who supported petitioners, and journalists who conducted investigative reporting on such problems, have become more and more limited.
I was in charge of grassroots grant aid projects in the Embassy of Japan. Civic organizations and private think tanks that were active at the time have since been closed down. Many central figures of such groups have been forced to be silent or arrested.
In collaboration with the Japan Foundation and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we conducted projects to do research on domestic and international issues facing China and Japan. We invited intellectuals who were capable of independent and critical thinking. At present, a considerable number of such Chinese intellectuals have faced difficulties working in China. University teachers are not allowed to teach classes. Surveillance cameras are installed in classrooms, and what teachers say in classrooms are recorded. Some teachers have been arrested after students tipped them off. Now the pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is mounting.
China’s ambiguous attitude towards Russian-Ukrainian relations
In the Beijing Winter Olympics last year, the leaders of democratic countries, including Canada and Japan, did not attend the opening ceremony but Russian President Vladimir Putin did. When President Putin and President Xi Jinping met, we never thought that Russia would invade Ukraine. China may even be upset by Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is an important base for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and has had a fairly good relationship with China up to this point, with its past role in providing weapons, including the Soviet-era aircraft carrier that was modernized and refurbished to become China’s first aircraft carrier.
Of course, China has also been placed in a bit of a contradictory quandary with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On one hand, China cannot but acknowledge Ukraine’s sovereignty. After all, China claims to the international community that it has sovereignty over Taiwan, making it difficult to resist acknowledging Ukraine as a sovereign state – one that should therefore be protected by international law against threats to its territorial integrity. On the other hand, China has criticized NATO’s joint pressure and economic sanctions against Russia. And, given its close relationship to Russia, Beijing has walked a fine line in terms of both supporting Russia in its invasion, by calling the invasion a special military operation or defending Russian security interests, while trying to avoid contradicting its self-interested defence of state sovereignty.
Ultimately, China and Ukraine have built good relations since establishing diplomatic ties in January 1992 after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, China has been in frequent contact with Ukraine. President Xi Jinping has often emphasized the following “Four Musts”: (1) the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected; (2) the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be fully observed; (3) the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be taken seriously; and (4) all efforts that are conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported. In the context of criticizing other countries’ intervention in the Taiwan issue and China’s ethnic minority issue, China should not accept Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
Propaganda gaining importance for China
Currently, publicity and propaganda are very important in China. History shows that propaganda is important in wartime, and it was once the case in Japan as well. Both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany actively deployed propaganda during the war to appeal to the international community for their legitimacy.
With Xi Jinping entering his third term at last year’s CCP Congress, there is a growing push to deify himself with a “cult of personality” similar to Mao Zedong. In such countries, propaganda becomes more and more important.
As a countermeasure against COVID-19, Xi implemented a forcible lockdown in Shanghai, an international city that is home to many foreigners. There were voices against it, and it later developed into “white paper movement,” though the movement has since calmed down and the protesters have been arrested one by one. The international community has been critical of China, due to its role in providing military assistance to Russia. Its recent push in establishing a dialogue between Russia and Ukraine has also been met with suspicious, given that a temporary ceasefire could give Russia time to rebuild its military posture for a renewed military campaign in Ukraine. Conditions in Ukraine have also deteriorated. In such situations, propaganda is often deployed to create external enemies and distract the public.
In fact, the Xi Jinping administration tends to try to secure its own legitimacy by maintaining a state of struggle against western countries with democratic systems, including Canada and Japan. Biased information, false information and fake news are disseminated, and various tactics and techniques are used to delete inconvenient reports and information.
Chinese media that relays Russia’s claims as they are
With regard to Ukraine, the war situation was still unclear as of February 2022, but the Chinese media quoted Russia’s state-run RT as saying: “Many Ukrainian soldiers have already given up their weapons.” This was clearly fake news. The Chinese media translated this false information from Russia and disseminated it to its public in large quantities. For example, the CCP tabloid Global Times also distributed videos based on false information.
Chinese social media platforms have been full of Russian media’s language, calling the Ukrainians extremists and neo-Nazis. For instance, China Central Television (CCTV) reported that “President Zelensky escaped from Kyiv” by quoting the story of the President of the Russian Federation Congress. But, as we all know, that is not the case at all. And Chinese nationalist influencer, Sima Nan（司馬南）, delivered his talk on Tik Tok, in which he noted that, according to Putin, Russia has obtained written evidence that the US has built a biological laboratory in Ukraine to study the spread of various dangerous viruses.
More recently, Chinese media have also been citing a video footage of an American expert spreading information that Pfizer intentionally creates mutant stocks of the coronavirus and is illegally profiting, in an attempt to try to damage the image of the United States.
With the failure of the zero-COVID policy having sparked white paper protests and growing criticism of the Xi administration, Beijing appears to be stepping up its campaign to stigmatize its enemy, the United States. School teachers have taught children to praise China’s COVID policies and to learn from the failures of the West.
Chinese intellectuals and citizens are struggling
Chinese journalists, intellectuals and citizens are struggling to get and spread reliable and meaningful information. Japan and Canada should collaborate more to support such Chinese people with conscience and expertise.
Countering Chinese authoritarianism and propaganda requires finding ways to deliver information to the people whose vision is narrowed by information control, and to support those who are unable to express themselves or act freely due to surveillance, detention, or arrest by the Chinese authorities. To create an environment where people from various social strata can judge the standards of justice and equality based on their own critical and independent thinking, it is important to promote the obvious recognition that resisting pressures from family, society and the state is individual’s basic human right.
This Inside Policy article was supported by the Japan Foundation.
Tomoko Ako is a Professor at the University of Tokyo.