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The War in Ukraine Is Keeping Chinese Social Media Censors Busy

“Artillery fire lights up the sky and breaks my heart. I hope my compatriots in Ukraine are taking care of themselves and their families,” said a user on Weibo, often called China’s Twitter, on February 27. The message was quickly blocked, according to Free Weibo, a service of Great Fire, which tracks Chinese censorship online.

Two days later, a very different message appeared on Weibo: “I support fighting! America and Taiwan have gone too far.” That, too, was blocked, according to Free Weibo.

The messages—and their quick disappearance—show how Chinese social media platforms find themselves in the crosshairs of the Russia-Ukraine war. The platforms must be sure to toe the official line amid subtle shifts in China’s position. Their responses could be an early test of new rules governing how companies use algorithms, which may make them responsible for trending topics and fake news appearing on their sites.

In general, Chinese online platforms receive daily guidance from the government about what sort of content to remove, says Yuqi Na, a researcher in media and communications at the University of Westminster.

A hint of how that works emerged in the days leading up to the invasion. On February 22, a Chinese outlet called Horizon News briefly posted, probably by accident, what appear to be internal instructions for how to spin the Ukraine crisis on its official Weibo account. Among the supposed rules: “Do not post anything unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western.”

The instructions also said to monitor comments and only use hashtags started by state outlets Xinhua, CCTV, or People’s Daily, according to China Digital Times. That sort of direction to follow the lead of major state outlets is common, says Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor in global communication at Georgia State University and author of Chinese Soft Power.

Prior to the invasion, Chinese state media outlets and officials’ Twitter accounts repeated a drumbeat of US warmongering, and brushed off the possibility of an invasion. Once the assault began, China was put in the awkward position of having to reconcile its long-standing policy of noninterference and respecting national sovereignty with its ties to Russia. Just weeks earlier, the two countries reaffirmed their relationship when Russian president Vladimir Putin was a VIP guest at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

In the early days of the war, Chinese state media seemed surprised and took a cautious approach. The relatively sparse coverage largely echoed Russian outlets, calling the conflict a “special military operation” and placing the blame on the US and NATO. “It’s quite intentional,” says Na. “A lot of internet users buy into that narrative when it's their main information source.”

In that environment, pro-Russia and nationalist discourse flourished. Putin’s February 24 speech justifying the invasion went viral, says Aliaksandr Herasimenka, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Program on Democracy and Technology. Social media companies let pro-war posts thrive, as well as some sexist posts by Chinese men pining for Ukrainian refugee brides.

At the same time, there was an outpouring of sympathy for Ukrainians on platforms such as Weibo and Weixin, a widely used chat and news app—but many of those posts disappeared once they became popular. Twitter users documented posts that were taken down, including posts depicting antiwar protests in other countries.

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“Across Chinese social media, you’ve got the official narrative, but you’ve also got a lot of counternarratives circulating, even if they get shut down as quickly as they go up,” Anthony Saich, director of Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, said at a talk on Thursday. “It clearly shows that people in China have a varied view of this. Some are disturbed about the long-term consequences.”

Saich noted that a February 26 statement by five Chinese professors condemning the war circulated widely before it was taken down. The statement offered a surprisingly direct challenge to the official position, saying in part, “Regardless of Russia's myriad reasons and all kinds of excuses, the use of force to invade a sovereign country is trampling on the norms of international relations based on the UN Charter.”

Since then, social media companies appear to be walking a thin line, trying to cool the most bellicose rhetoric without crossing any red lines, in particular with criticism of Russia.

Over the weekend, China began casting itself as a mediator and calling for a peaceful resolution in public statements. Some official coverage became more sympathetic to Ukraine, says Repnikova. CGTN, China’s international TV station, has aired coverage of the destruction in Ukraine and the impact on civilians.

On Sunday, several social media platforms took measures to turn down the volume, saying they had removed fake news and inappropriate speech, including posts promoting war. Weibo, for example, said it temporarily suspended or deleted 10,000 accounts, and said users should be “objective” and “reasonable,” because “a peaceful environment is hard to come by.”

There’s still plenty of blame shifted to the West, in particular the US and NATO, and open criticism of Russia appears to be off the table. On Tuesday, popular TV host and transgender artist Jin Xing said her Weibo account was blocked after she spoke out against the war and called Putin “crazy.” And some netizens have argued, echoing reports in official media, that the foreign media’s portrayal of China as pro-Russia is endangering the safety of Chinese citizens who remain in Ukraine.

“The state is now trying to tone down the pro-war sentiments, but it would be difficult for them to condemn Russia. The message is consistent: Condemn the US hegemony and dominance, especially regarding human rights issues,” says Na. “This is some kind of bottom line.”

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