Essay on US site republished in China before being censored, reflecting balancing act between Russia and west
When an essay from a prominent Shanghai scholar suggested China needed to cut ties with Vladimir Putin as soon as possible over the Ukraine war, the online reaction was swift.
Despite being published late on a Friday evening in the Carter Center’s US-China Perception Monitor, Hu Wei’s essay soon gained a million views in and outside China, and was republished into Chinese blogs, non-official media sites and social media accounts.
Then came the backlash, as the article was criticised for being “reckless and dangerous” vitriol. Personal attacks on Hu and the USCPM followed. By Sunday morning, their websites were blocked in China.
“Usually when the government or the censors don’t like a particular article – like [something published by] FT Chinese – they’ll just block that particular article, they don’t block the website,” said Liu Yawei, the director of the China programme at the US-based Carter Center.
“So this is highly unusual.”
China’s position on the invasion and how far it is willing to go in supporting Russia is one of most stridently debated topics of the war, but inside China the conversation is strictly controlled, with little tolerance for dissenting views.
“I’d read a lot of commentaries in Chinese media outlets, and Prof Hu’s article certainly disagreed with the majority of those articles,” said Liu. “Hu actually tried to say these are dangerous views … I made the quick decision to put it out.”
Published in English and Chinese, Hu’s essay argued that Russia’s advancement was faltering and China needed to cut ties with Putin “as soon as possible” to avoid being on the losing side and facing “further containment” from the US and the west.
“China should avoid playing both sides in the same boat, give up being neutral, and choose the mainstream position in the world,” he wrote.
Since the 24 February invasion, China has struggled to navigate an awkward position as a close ally of Russia but one unwilling to share the international condemnation and economic sanctions. It has sought to hold incompatible positions respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and what it calls Russia’s “security concerns”. The confusion is reflected in its media and public statements.
Hu is among a number of significant Chinese voices to challenge the official line. Wang Huiyao, the president of the Beijing-based thinktank the Center for China and Globalization, argued in the New York Times that western alliances would grow stronger and closer as the war dragged on. “That is not good for China,” he said, calling for the west to bring Beijing on as a mediator and “offer the Russian leader an offramp”, which in turn could repair China’s international standing.
The messaging from China’s leadership and state media has largely presented the government as a neutral peacemaker, but blaming the US and Nato for the conflict and not criticising Russia and Putin – a key ally with whom Xi Jinping signed a “limitless” partnership shortly before the invasion.