The president of the International Paralympic Committee, the Brazilian Andrew Parsons, began speaking in his opening speech at the Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing last Friday. “Tonight I want – I must – start with a message of peace,” he began. “I am horrified by what is happening in the world right now. The 21st century is a time of dialogue and diplomacy, not of war and hatred”, he maintained, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But his message of peace did not reach the host country of the games: state television CCTV censored those words, which it did not translate into Mandarin.
That same weekend, iQiyi, the streaming platform that holds the broadcast rights to English football, canceled broadcast of Premier League matches so as not to display messages of support for Ukraine in the stadiums, including the band of the team captains with the yellow and blue colors of the flag of the attacked country.
In all wars, propaganda and his sister censorship become one of the fronts. China, which has aligned itself with non-impartial neutrality with Russia in the conflict in Ukraine, represents one of its battlefields. In it, Chinese government spokesmen have taken up the Russian story. For two days, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeated accusations launched by Russia without presenting evidence: that the United States maintains some thirty chemical weapons laboratories in Ukraine. In it too, the narrative of the national media has been evolving to adapt to that of the Government as Beijing’s position has been changing nuances. Voices expressing a different message are erased.
By repeating from the official tribunes the same message as Moscow, “China tries to find a logical argument to justify its support for Russia” on the invasion, says Justyna Szczudlik, of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. This expert notes that China’s official discourse “avoids mentioning Ukraine by name. He always refers to the ‘Ukrainian problem’, the ‘Ukrainian situation’. She does not express explicit support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine; she only speaks in general of ‘respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States’”. Instead, she does mention Russia over and over again by name.
Beijing’s position, at least verbally, has settled on a “heeled neutrality” of support for Moscow, which its media have imitated. In the weeks prior to the conflict, official spokespersons, the media and social networks mocked – as Russia did – the United States’ claims about Vladimir Putin’s intentions to invade the neighboring country. On the eve of the attack, Shimiana digital owned by the official newspaper beijingnewsapparently mistakenly published a directive from the Chinese Cyber Security Agency to the media: information favorable to the US or critical of Russia should not be published, comments on the news should be carefully filtered, and the media should use the information sent by the three state giants: the Xinhua agency, CCTV and the People’s Daily.
The first days of the war the media were very cautious when it came to reporting. While in the rest of the world the invasion monopolized pages and minutes of broadcasting, the Chinese media kept silent or relegated their coverage to give priority to the speeches of President Xi Jinping or the hangover from the Olympic Games. They did not use the word “war” or “invasion”, but rather “crisis” or “special operation”.
A couple of days later that changed. The media began to cover with more intensity but a clear pro-Russian tone. To the point of reproducing the information from the media of the friendly country, without contrasting it. CCTV came to reproduce on networks a Russian television news according to which the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelensky, had fled to Poland.
In recent days, as Beijing has entrenched itself in its “heeled neutrality”, that position has evolved to adopt a less subjective tone about the conflict. A directive issued by the Cyberspace Administration of China last week to internet companies, and leaked to the ChinaDigitalTimesa medium on-line specializing in the study of the Chinese media, he ordered “to cool down the temperature of public sentiment on the conflict between Ukraine and Russia”. Local media, websites and blogs are not allowed to carry out live broadcasts or include labels related to the war, and “they are strictly prohibited from reproducing information from abroad that violates the rules.”
In networks, censorship has also been launched. The public opinion that is expressed in them is mostly nationalist, in favor of Russia and against NATO. Although it is difficult to know if this effectively captures the pulse of society – the Chinese population still bitterly remembers the bombing of its embassy in Belgrade in 1999 by the Alliance, in which three journalists died – or if it is the result of the erasure of the censors. Weibo, the Chinese twitter, has reported the closure or temporary suspension of thousands of accounts.
Among those frozen is that of popular transsexual actress and TV host Jin Xing. Her last published message: “respect all lives, firmly oppose war”.
Julian Wei’s account was canceled by Douyin, the Chinese parent company of TikTok. “I posted a critical message towards Russia at night. The next day I had a message saying that my account had violated China’s rules and regulations and was canceled forever,” says the 32-year-old law graduate. Douyin claims to have removed 6,400 videos, suspended more than 1,600 live broadcasts and deleted more than 12,000 comments about the war.
An open letter signed by five Chinese university history professors condemning the war and the official Chinese account has also disappeared from the Chinese internet. In that statement, published on February 26 -two days after the beginning of the invasion-, the authors denounced that “regardless of Russia’s many reasons and all kinds of excuses, the use of force to invade a sovereign country is it breaks the norms of international relations based on the UN Charter”. “We empathize with the suffering of the Ukrainian people,” they added.
Another similar letter, signed by two hundred students of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, demanded that Putin withdraw the honorary doctorate granted to him by the institution, according to the newspaper South China Morning Post.
“In Chinese social networks you find the official narrative, but there are also a lot of contrary narratives swiped, even if they are blocked as soon as they are published,” said Anthony Saich, director of the Ash Center for Democratic Government at Harvard University, in a seminar the last week. “That shows that people in China have mixed opinions about what is going on. Some are worried about the long-term consequences.”
Meanwhile, the International Paralympic Committee demanded an explanation from CCTV about the censorship of its president. So far, without success. “We are still waiting for his position or his explanation,” Parsons told the AFP agency on Thursday. “We look forward to hearing what they have to say.”