As hundreds of Chinese nationals tried to get evacuated from Ukraine on the seventh day of the Russian invasion, one Chinese national living in Odessa who turned citizen journalist when the war started said he won’t be leaving any time soon.
Artificial intelligence expert Wang Jixian started posted his first-hand accounts of the war, including seeing a friend shot by invading Russian troops, and parents trying to hold back tanks with their bare hands.
But his outspoken videos cursing out Russian troops were out of step with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s official stance on the Russian invasion, and have been deleted or blocked from social media platforms in China by government censors.
He has also been the target of online abuse from Little Pinks, an online army of troll-commentators who enforce the CCP line on China’s tightly controlled internet.
“I’m not really thinking about Ukraine, but that my company is here, and my investment is here,” Wang told RFA, when asked about the accusations that he had “betrayed China,” and is “a lackey of the United States.”
“Don’t come and burn down my house and kill my neighbors,” Wang said. “There’s little girl who lives near me … and an uncle who walks the dog downstairs and buys groceries every day. They don’t deserve to die.”
“Before the war, people worked in hair salons and restaurants, and then they went out of their way [to defend themselves]. That’s what I saw,” he said.
He said he won’t be leaving. “I don’t want to die. I want to live, but the tanks are coming.”
‘I think he’s a hero’
Wang said he hadn’t previously held a particularly good opinion of president Volodymyr Zelensky or his government, whom he later praises in his videos.
“Before this war started, I was very annoyed by Zelensky, and … there were a lot of things I was dissatisfied with,” he said. “But when the troops and the tanks were here, in the cities, I saw a president who said ‘I’m your president and I’m here for you.'”
“I think he’s a hero, and so do my neighbors.”
Wang said many Chinese nationals are having trouble leaving, even if they want to.
“I’ll tell you what evacuation is like,” he said. “We got a message from the embassy telling us what time to assemble in Kyiv, but this morning, a friend of mine was at the Azov camp, which had just been bombed: the bridge has been bombed, the ground bombed and the highway broken up, and he didn’t have a car, so how was he supposed to get there?”
“I also have a buddy in Kharkov, but he would be able to get out of there if you gave him a tank,” Wang said.
Wang’s claims were backed up by messages posted in recent days to a WeChat group of more than 250 Chinese nationals stranded in Ukraine, all of whom are trying to find a way to leave.
Wang said he plans to hang on in Odessa and keep filming the war, despite the death threats coming from his own compatriots.
“I’m staying here on this battlefield, with a visible, tangible enemy,” Wang said. “On that other battlefield, I can’t see where my enemies are, they are all people I don’t know, and they want to kill me, or settle accounts with me afterwards?”
“I’m surrounded by tanks right now, so how would I be afraid of them?”
Russia’s Chinese mouthpiece
Renmin University journalism graduate Lu Nan, who recently signed a letter condemning the Russian invasion, said Chinese state media have been using a lot of content from Russian media reports.
“For example, footage of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers working together to protect the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” Lu said. “Official [Chinese] media have pretty much become the mouthpiece of the Russian media.”
He said the CCP’s shadowy “public opinion management” operations were encouraging pro-Russian comments on social media, creating a general expectation that Russia will win the war.
“They only allow one voice to exist, so all of the comments are supportive of Putin, and least on the surface, which is a result of [the CCP’s] taking sides,” Lu said. “No dissenting voices are allowed to appear.”
Journalist Zhang Feng said Wang’s videos have been blocked in China because the CCP doesn’t want its people to see the true situation on the ground.
“A lot of websites have been deleting [posts] on this topic and they are dampening [reports and commentary] on social media, purely to make sure that Chinese people can’t see how Ukraine is fighting and winning, for example, civilians beating back tanks.”
“That kind of thing would have a huge impact in China, and they want to avoid popularizing those values,” Zheng said.
Repeated calls to the Chinese embassy in Kyiv and to the consulate general in Odessa went unconnected on Tuesday.
The Cyberspace Administration of China, which is in charge of controlling online content in China, hadn’t responded to a request for comment by the time of writing.
Current affairs commentator Si Ling said China had likely been taken aback by the resistance to the Russian invasion, and could be reappraising its economic ties with the two nations.
“China was likely hoping that … Russia will sell Ukraine’s important strategic resources to China at a lower price,” Si told RFA. “Ukraine is very concerned about China … because the Chinese government has consistently refused to condemn the Russian invasion.”
He said that now looks unlikely.
“The idea that Ukraine can be quickly annexed by Russia has now been completely shattered,” Si said. “It may be difficult to achieve good trade cooperation between China and Ukraine in future, and it’s very unlikely that Ukraine will sell so much grain to China … or at quite such mutually beneficial prices.”
Joseph Cheng, former politics professor at Hong Kong’s City University, said Beijing could also start bankrolling Russia.
“China claims to have US$3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, and I believe there will be no problem with lending to Russia,” Cheng said, adding that the last oil and gas supply contract came amid international sanctions after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.
“Russia lowered its asking price under the international situation, so I believe China will also look for similar opportunities this time around,” Cheng said.
China is a major buyer of Ukrainian corn, barley and sunflower oil, with Ukrainian imports accounting for nearly 30 percent of total corn imports in 2021, according to Chinese customs figures.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.