When Hu Wei, a politically well-connected scholar in Shanghai, warned that China risked becoming a pariah if it didn’t denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he ignited a war of words on China’s internet.
Some readers praised Mr. Hu’s article, which spread online last week, seeing its gloomy prognosis about China becoming isolated behind a new Iron Curtain of hostility from Western countries as a welcome challenge to official Chinese soft-pedaling of President Vladimir V. Putin’s aggression. Many others denounced him as a stooge of Washington, unduly critical of Russia’s war aims and prospects. Chinese authorities blocked the website of U.S.-China Perception Monitor, where his article first appeared, and tried to censor it on social media.
Inside China, the war in Ukraine “has ignited enormous disagreements, setting supporters and opponents at polar extremes,” Mr. Hu wrote. His own stance was clear: “China should not be yoked to Putin and must sever itself from him as soon as it can.”
Mr. Hu’s article has been the most striking instance of rising opposition to Russia’s assault on an independent neighbor, and rebukes of Beijing for its reluctance to criticize Moscow.
The criticism at home comes as Beijing faces increasing pressure abroad from the United States and European governments to use its influence over Russia to help stop the war. On Friday, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, spoke with President Biden, a call in which the American leader warned Mr. Xi that supporting Russia’s aggression would have unspecified “implications and consequences.”
In China, where the authorities tightly police and punish speech both online and offline, public opinion appears largely sympathetic to Mr. Putin.
Yet despite the risks, some citizens have been voicing criticisms — in quips on social media ridiculing Mr. Putin and his nationalist devotees in China; in scathing online comments responding to official statements; and in essays laying out the moral, political and economic costs of the war not just for Russia, but its partner, China.
“We have never had any commentary that attracted so much attention,” said Yawei Liu, the editor of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor, referring to Mr. Hu’s article. The Chinese version of the article attracted 300,000 views on the Monitor’s website, and millions more from being shared on Chinese social media, Mr. Liu said in a telephone interview from Atlanta, where the online journal is based.
“There is overwhelming support for the China-Russia partnership, and overwhelming support for Putin’s war against Ukraine,” he said of Chinese opinion. “But the political, academic and economic elite are different. There is this real worry.”
Chinese critics of the war include academics with a foothold in the political establishment, like Mr. Hu, who are usually shielded from the worst pressure. He is a professor in Shanghai’s school for Communist Party officials, and a vice president of a public policy center under the State Council, the Chinese cabinet of government ministers. He declined to be interviewed.
Chinese censors have tried to snuff out the sharpest criticisms. People have also come under pressure from the authorities for expressing their opposition to the war.
In recent days, Chinese officials warned many among some 130 alumni of Chinese universities who had signed a petition against the war, said Lu Nan, a retired businessman in New York who helped organize the campaign. The petition, also signed by alumni living abroad, had declared that Russia’s invasion was an “affront to the bottom line of human conscience.”
“Every single one was taken for tea,” Mr. Lu said in a telephone interview, using a common euphemism referring to being questioned by the police. The Chinese government was nervous, he said, because “it’s tied to Russia’s war chariot, and knows that this is very dangerous.”
Still, critics continue to speak out, suggesting that a significant minority is so alarmed by the war that they are willing to defy the censors. Despite the censorship, plenty of dissenting views have been kept alive by readers on social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat. Most of those speaking out are political liberals also opposed to China’s deepening authoritarianism and nationalism under Mr. Xi.
Other Chinese opponents of the war are near its frontline. Some Chinese residents in Ukraine are trying to break through the censorship back home to give their compatriots an unvarnished chronicle of life under fighting.
Wang Jixian, one of the most popular of these video chroniclers, posts regular dispatches from his apartment or the streets in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa, where he lives. His posts often start with air raid sirens, a howling reminder of how the attacks put civilians’ lives in danger.
Mr. Wang said he spent hours every day debating Chinese supporters of the war who see him on WeChat and other social media platforms. (By Friday, his WeChat video channel was erased.)
“I tell them I didn’t start this war, and if you feel it’s a righteous cause, why not come here?” Mr. Wang said in a telephone interview from his apartment. “Why don’t you just come on over and give your life for Putin?”
Mr. Wang hoped that over time his commentaries would turn some Chinese people against the increasingly brutal Russian invasion.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know
But Zhao Rui, another Chinese video blogger in Ukraine, said opinion in China appeared hard to shift. Many Chinese people see Russia as a robust ally against what they say is American efforts to contain China’s rise. China’s leader, Mr. Xi, has invested his prestige in a close relationship with Mr. Putin.
“China has always treated Ukraine as a failure, a reject,” Mr. Zhao said in a telephone interview. “Even now, the great majority still strongly supports Putin.”
Of half a million comments on Ukraine over the past two months on Weibo, a Chinese social media service, about half blamed the war on Ukraine, the United States or “the West” in general, according to research by Jennifer Pan, a political scientist at Stanford University, and other researchers from Stanford and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
About one-tenth blamed Russia or Mr. Putin.
That critical minority in China, though, includes academics and professionals whose views carry more weight. Opposition from the elite may eventually seep into government policy deliberations, encouraging Beijing to shift away from Mr. Putin, especially if Russia’s assault suffers more setbacks.
“When I talk to Chinese scholars, they are very critical of Putin, they’re critical of Russia, they’re critical of the invasion,” said Paul Haenle, a former director for China on the National Security Council in both the Bush and Obama administrations, who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
China, Mr. Haenle said, “can’t move maybe as quickly as they would like. But many of them say they’re going to distance themselves over time.”
Five historians issued an open letter denouncing the war. Lu Xiaoyu, an international relations professor at Peking University, wrote online that Russia’s war was “imperialist expansionism, not national self-defense.” Qin Hui and Jin Yan, two other widely respected historians in Beijing, have given online lectures on the background of the crisis.
“The situation now is not a Cold War, but it may be even more dangerous than one,” Ms. Jin wrote in a recent essay about Russia. “The world order may again divide into two camps over its stance on Russia.”
Still, Mr. Xi appears committed to staying close to Russia, even as China has sought to dissociate itself from the attack on Ukraine. The increasingly centralized decision-making process in Beijing has meant that even prominent scholars do not have the same access as under previous leaders.
If Russia’s war and the ensuing Western sanctions drag down China’s economic growth, leaders in Beijing could become more receptive to the warnings from Chinese scholars, Mr. Liu from the U.S.-China Perception Monitor said.
“To hang yourself on the Russian tree, I think that’s like committing suicide,” he said, “at least economic suicide.”
Joy Dong and Liu Yi contributed research.