Chinese media coverage of the Ukraine crisis resembles Russian media, accusing the US and its Western allies of triggering Moscow’s offensive on Kiev.
China is Russia’s biggest ally and maintains strong economic connections with Moscow, which figures heavily in its media coverage of the Ukraine crisis, framing the conflict on how NATO expansion forced Moscow’s hand to react against Kiev.
Until the 1980s, almost all Chinese media outlets had been state-run following the establishment of the communist-led Chinese government in 1949. Since the 1980s, China has allowed private media groups to operate if following strict guidelines set by authorities on sensitive political subjects, but state-run organisations are still dominant.
Many Chinese media outlets have shied away from showing widespread destruction across Ukraine, and have been absolving Russian troops of the recent civilian deaths in the city of Bucha. While the Western media calls it the “Bucha massacre,” Russia denies that it has deliberately targeted civilians.
"It is regrettable that after the exposure of the 'Bucha incident,' the US, the initiator of the Ukraine crisis, has not shown any signs of urging peace and promoting talks, but is ready to exacerbate the Russia-Ukraine tensions," said an editorial in the Global Times, China’s daily tabloid, placing blame on Washington for what happens in Ukraine.
The Global Times works under the country’s leading Communist Party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily. Like other Chinese media outlets, the newspaper questioned the veracity of claims of civilian killings by Russia and suggested that the Bucha killings were staged after Russian forces withdrew from their positions in northern Ukraine towards Belarus.
"The relevant circumstances and specific causes of the incident should be verified and established. Any accusations should be based on facts," said Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, whose General Secretary Antonio Guterres recently called for a war crimes investigation into what happened in Bucha.
Recently, the German intelligence services, BND, claimed to have intercepted the Russian military’s radio communications relating to civilian deaths in Bucha, showing Moscow’s connections to the killings.
Is the Chinese media neutral?
When it comes to international affairs, China likes to refer to itself as a neutral country. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it chooses to abstain from many crucial decisions, not revealing a clear stance. For a long time, the country has avoided armed conflict, using soft power instruments based on its economic strength to exert influence.
"No matter how the 'Bucha incident' took place, no one can deny at least one thing: War itself is the main culprit of the humanitarian disaster," said the editorial of the country’s state-funded Global Times.
The Chinese media describes Moscow’s onslaught on Ukraine as “special military operations” following Russia’s official line, which continues to define its offensive in that manner. Russian and Chinese media groups have a long history of cooperation, which also affects the Asian state's positive media coverage of Moscow.
While China puts great emphasis on its neutrality and praises ongoing negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, Beijing does not want to play a mediating role between the two countries or between Moscow and the Western alliance, unlike Türkiye, Israel and France. Among them, Ankara has worked hard to bring the two conflicting sides to the table to reach a peace deal.
But Chinese media is framing the ongoing negotiations between Kiev and Moscow in a way that shows that Moscow intends to seek peace rather than military engagement.
Chinese media also chooses to show video footage and pictures of refugees allegedly fleeing to Russia from eastern Ukraine, part of which has been controlled by pro-Moscow separatists, as opposed to the millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to countries like Poland, Kiev’s Western neighbour.
China and Russia have strengthened ties in recent years under Western pressure, publicly indicating that their alliance has “no limits” as the two countries’ leaders met each other during the Winter Olympics in February.
But the Ukraine conflict showed that the relationship is not without limits, as Beijing has carefully stayed on the perimeters of the conflict, not committing itself to any significant financial or military aid to Russia. Meanwhile, the Western bloc, which openly supplies arms to Ukraine, has sent billions of dollars to help the country’s economy stay on course.
In the media world, a similar play is on full display. Despite the fact that the Chinese media tries to show more of the Russian approach regarding the Ukraine conflict than the Western political stance, Moscow does not enjoy the full support of the country’s press.
Ukraine, on the other hand, has received extensive support from Western media even while some of Kiev’s troops have appeared to conduct some unlawful acts like executing Russian prisoners.
While the Chinese internet is filled with pro-Russian and pro-Putin remarks, and it's common to see Chinese social media accounts full of praise and admiration for the Russian leader, it might not show the real picture of what ordinary Chinese think.
Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor in global communications at Georgia State University, believes that China’s Ukraine approach might be shaped more by its anti-Western attitude than being pro-Russian.
“The pro-Russian [sentiment] is often veiled as this larger critique of the West — so it’s hard to tell how much of it is pro-Russia, how much of it is actually anti-US, or if it’s fused together,” Repnikova told VOA.