As Russian troops press further into Ukraine, and Ukrainian citizens join with their army to fight back, reactions around the world have been emphatic. On Saturday, the United States, the United Kingdom, and their European allies followed up on previously announced sanctions with new measures to punish Moscow by kicking Russian financial institutions out of the SWIFT banking system. As Western news organizations continue to follow events on the ground, Western media is streaming with critical analysis and loud with condemnation. Globally, protestors have taken to the streets in support of Ukraine, and public authorities have responded, lighting up iconic landmarks—including the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and the Brandenburg Gate—in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Sports authorities have canceled major events scheduled to take place in Russia, while throughout the English Premier League, Saturday’s football games began—among tens of thousands and beamed to hundreds of millions—with displays of solidarity, as across the jumbotron in London’s Selhurst Park: WE STAND WITH UKRAINE. None of this extends to China, however, where business continues as usual and newspapers, TV, and the internet present a conflict full of complexity but driven ultimately by legitimate Russian security concerns. Why?

Angeli Datt is a senior research analyst at Freedom House, where she focuses on China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and works on the organization’s China Media Bulletin. According to Datt, Beijing is trying to strike a delicate balance in shaping Chinese media coverage of the Russian invasion: supporting Russia without endorsing the invasion—or even referring to it as an invasion—while advancing anti-Western narratives … and without fully alienating the United States or the European Union. Datt sees Chinese state media casting Beijing as a responsible actor on the world stage, with President Xi Jinping calling for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. For now, she says, Chinese social media is allowing a little more free-flowing discussion about the attack on Ukraine than it would permit about issues more directly related to China. But Beijing’s sophisticated system of information control ensures that even news from Eastern Europe will be carefully curated and censored for the Chinese people in the considered interests of the Chinese government.

Graham Vyse: How is all the invasion playing in Chinese media?

Angeli Datt: China has accused the U.S. of fanning the flames of this conflict and has long had a very anti-NATO stance, since NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. China consistently says NATO owes it a blood debt.

Since this invasion of Ukraine started, Chinese media has taken some time to formulate its response, but it’s beginning to crystalize. Recently, we’ve been seeing the Chinese government develop a deepening relationship with Russia. Putin made a high-level visit to this month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, and China and Russia have declared a "no limits" partnership. The invasion effectively began the day after Olympics’ closing ceremony, with Beijing taking a position in support of Moscow while trying to maintain China’s longstanding positions on territorial integrity and sovereignty—which are difficult positions to be holding right now. China is saying that Russia has legitimate security concerns and that what’s happening isn’t an invasion but rather, as Russia’s described it, a “special military operation.” That’s the message Chinese state media is pushing.

Vyse: And how’s it pushing that message?

Datt: You have People’s Daily, which is the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, Xinhua, and CCTV [China Central Television], where you’ll get the government’s message clearly and dryly. You have other media usually controlled or owned in some way by the state, and the party sends them media directives—avoid this, emphasize that—that they have to abide by, making them de facto state media, pushing a government line. You also of course have direct censorship—certain perspectives deleted on social media, for instance.


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