A comment widely circulated on various Chinese social media platforms in recent days portrays the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as a romantic triangle: Ukraine is characterized as Russia’s ex-wife, who abused the couple’s two children – the pro-Moscow breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk – and who also flirted with the United States and dreamed of joining the NATO family but was rebuffed. Alternative and expanded versions of the metaphor include the United States abducting another child, Taiwan, with the implication that China should follow the lead of Russia, which took back its own offspring, Crimea.

What’s striking about these posts, aside from the obvious misogyny (one comment notes that the characterization “assumes that women have no independent personality, only an evil spirit”), is the central character of each of them: the United States.

Many Western commentators and officials have interpreted China’s evasive stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a manifestation of Beijing’s strengthened alliance with Moscow. Focusing on the so-called boundless friendship between the two authoritarian powers, however, diverts the main focus from China in this crisis. Our analysis of social media comments on China’s heavily circumscribed social networks and official statements about the invasion reveals that pro-Russian postures – whether by government officials or netizens whose opinions have been widely shared (and therefore can be interpreted as representing the prevailing sentiment) – is a veil to express a deeper critique of American, and more broadly Western, influence.

In diplomatic statements and social media discussions, Russia’s war on Ukraine is rationalized as a necessary step to resist Western (and primarily American) aggression. Chinese officials never explicitly endorsed the Russian invasion, but they explained that this conflict resulted from the military escalation unleashed by the United States. At the very beginning of the invasion, for example, the Chinese Foreign Minister’s assistant, Hua Chunying, denounced the United States for pushing Russia to its limits by expanding NATO towards its borders. Renowned international relations scholar Shen Yi went even further, comparing the threat of NATO expansion for Russia to that of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis for the United States, and blaming the states States and their allies to dominate the world order. A prominent professor of political science, Shiping Tang, argues that the invasion of Russia was in fact a trap orchestrated by the United States for Russia, Ukraine and Europe, a trap that allows Washington to take advantage of the collapse of trust in Moscow and to rebuild its own ties with Europe.

This anti-Western framing is also prevalent in online debates about the crisis. The flood of pro-Moscow nationalist commentary on Chinese social media focuses less on Russia itself or dissecting Russian-Ukrainian relations, and more on NATO and the US as having pushed Moscow into doom mode. self-defense. In response to an illustration of NATO’s geographic expansion posted on China’s Weibo microblogging platform by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, commentators were quick to attack NATO: ‘NATO will pay its blood debt’, ‘NATO has no limits, and its aggressive ambition will trigger pushbacks’, ‘No one can stomach eastward expansion on such a scale.’ Another post popular Weibo that generated over 4,600 shares argued that wars are necessary for long-term peace and that the United States must abandon its pursuit of hegemonic power.These comments grant little or no support. agency to Ukraine, blaming or ridiculing it for aspiring to join the wrong great power alliance.(Admittedly, alternative voices have emerged in recent days on the Chinese internet, offering sympathy for Ukraine through stories shared expat Chinese in-country and warzone scenes, but these are either short-lived due to censorship or gain limited traction compared to more assertive anti-American messages.)

Official and unofficial commentary further underscores the alleged double standards employed by the United States and other Western countries; many, for example, contrast Washington’s concern for Ukraine with its slow condemnation of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, or pit US anger at the invasion against US military interventions in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, for example, accused the US administration of criticizing China for not doing enough to end the conflict in Ukraine while failing to keep peace itself. and international stability. On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, a viral video posted by a stand-up comedy account mocks Western countries for quickly implementing sanctions against Russian art, sports teams and even cats, unlike their moderate reactions to a range of United States attacks and foreign-led conflicts. The video attracted over 49,000 likes.

This use of pro-Russian commentary as a way to challenge the West’s moral stance fits into the larger pattern of growing combativeness in Chinese diplomatic rhetoric. Double standards framing, for example, is a common technique for criticizing the United States and rebutting accusations against China’s human rights record. After the January 6 insurgency in the United States, Chinese state media accounts actively documented the flaws of American democracy, portraying it as fragile, and comparing it to the ostensibly more robust and accountable governance of China. Citing a 2021 Chinese government white paper on the country’s democracy, the public tabloid world times claimed that in China, authorities have direct contact with society and strive to “maximize people’s well-being,” while in the United States politics operates through ineffective election mechanisms and that efforts to improve people’s lives are often distorted by the force of capital.

China under President Xi Jinping is eager to take the ‘power of speech’ from the West, which it sees as intent on hindering China’s rise, and so Russia could be a timely proxy. through which Beijing can channel its discontent. The enthusiastic adoption of this position by digital nationalists suggests that the official framing of the conflict has helped to strengthen the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, without it having to take the real risk of siding economically and militarily with Russia. .

The conflict in Ukraine is not the only thing China views through the prism of its rivalry with Washington. He sees the lessons he needs to learn from the crisis through a similar lens. The unified effort by Europe and the United States to hit the Russian economy is likely to deepen Xi’s belief that China must rely less on the West. Official statements and state media reports already illustrate this mood: unlike Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, which opened with Ukraine, China’s National People’s Congress has so far mainly focused on national economic and societal governance. Chinese media coverage of Ukraine has also been overshadowed by news about Xi and his various successes, as well as coverage from the National People’s Congress.

In a recent poll, a blogger on Weibo asked how China should handle its relations with Russia; the majority of those polled said that Beijing should support Moscow, but the most favorable comments argued that ultimately China should focus on itself and fighting the United States in the long term. Hu Xijin, world times‘ former editor, echoed that sentiment, saying China’s diplomatic mindset is different from Russia’s and that Beijing should fight with the United States but avoid direct confrontation.

Reflecting on the economic costs borne by Russia so far as a result of the invasion, official and online discussions have also focused on the need for preventive measures, such as building a digital currency and reducing China’s dependence on the international payment system SWIFT, and strengthening China’s national technological and military capabilities. China has already passed an anti-foreign sanctions law to counter the US and European Union response to Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Zhang Yesui, spokesperson for the National People’s Congress, recently claimed that the “defensive” move showed how “China uses legislation to counter foreign interference and long-arm jurisdiction.”

The broader lessons Beijing draws from the Moscow experience are not the first ones China draws from watching Russia. Xi repeatedly cited the collapse of the Soviet Union as a lesson for China and stressed the need for the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its own governance to avoid similar outcomes.

US officials and commentators have long promoted a narrative of collusion between Beijing and Moscow, and China’s seemingly pro-Russian stance on Ukraine has reinvigorated that argument, calling for a clean division of the world into democracies and autocracies. This risks overestimating the ties between the two countries. China’s pro-Russian rhetoric is rooted more in anti-Western (and particularly anti-American) sentiment than in substantial support for the Russian military operation or any steadfast alliance.

Instead, as the Chinese government and Chinese people watch Russia’s rapid disconnection from the global economic system, their focus shifts more inward, to protect China from similar outcomes. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inspired a nationalist wave in China, but it also presents a cautionary tale for Beijing when it comes to challenging the liberal Western and US-led order.