Chinese have expressed concern for their compatriots present in Ukraine since the outbreak of war with Russia on Thursday, Feb. 24 amid intense fighting, and as the costs and difficulty of leaving the country rise.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s pro-Kremlin attitude concerning the conflict — and widespread praise for the Russian invasion on Chinese social media — may end up jeopardizing the safety of Chinese citizens in the country.
There were roughly 6,000 Chinese nationals in Ukraine at the time of the invasion, according to the embassy, which noted the worsening situation. The disruption of transport and chaos following the start of war has made it extremely difficult to get out of Ukraine, and many airports have been bombed or closed.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) embassy in Ukraine initially advised Chinese to “clearly display PRC flags” on their cars as a sign of neutrality.
But on Saturday, Feb. 26, the embassy reversed its suggestion, telling PRC nationals in Ukraine to “avoid … flaunting symbols of their identity” as Chinese, Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported. It also advised Chinese in Ukraine to maintain “harmonious relations with the Ukrainian people “ and “avoid confrontations on specific issues.”
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According to some Chinese living in Ukraine, showing the PRC’s colors actually got them in trouble.
“I put the national flag on my car, as the embassy recommended,” a user wrote on Telegram. “Then people started chasing me, what the [expletive].”
Another user chastised the embassy on social media: “Do you dare take responsibility for your words? Putting the flag on yourself and going outside is looking for death. Everyone knows that the Chinese here are affluent and well-supplied, and on top of that people here think the Chinese support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine!”
The user went on to note that the Ukrainian authorities advised everyone to avoid wearing camouflage or clothes with red markings, since the Russian military insignia has red in it. The PRC flag is red with five yellow stars.
A popular Twitter post describes how Chinese students in Ukraine, worried about backlash from locals, quickly ripped up and discarded their red-colored Chinese new years decorations.
1 million yuan to get out of Ukraine
Chinese students studying in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city and a major front in the war against Russia, told Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) of their experiences around the time of the invasion.
Zhang Gang, the alias of a Chinese student in the city, said that the first rounds of artillery barrages came when he was still sleeping in his dorm at 5 a.m. in the morning, leaving him in disbelief.
According to Zhang, the sudden outbreak of war was especially shocking because he and his friends had gotten used to the saber-rattling along the border and did not anticipate such an escalation.
“I didn’t expect it to be real, my classmates were all terrified.”
Other students reported feeling their buildings shake with the opening bombardment and seeing the roads jammed with traffic. One man, Zhang Ming, posted a video showing him and other residents of Kharkov taking refuge in the city’s bomb shelters.
Jason, a Chinese national residing in Kiev, told his online followers on Feb. 24 that “I woke up and my girlfriend told me that the airport runway was gone.”
He tried to find a chartered bus, but did not have enough money. He opened an app for chartered flights and found even worse results: a ticket from Kiev to Shanghai would cost him 1.05 million yuan, or around US$170,000. His livestream generated 230,000 likes on Chinese social media.
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Likely motivating the Chinese embassy in Ukraine’s reversal of advice to show PRC flags was the pro-Russia stance of Beijing following the start of hostilities, as well as a conspicuous tide of praise for the invasion across Chinese social media.
While the PRC foreign ministry on Feb. 23 said the sovereignty of all nations, including that of Ukraine, must be respected, it has blamed the United States and allies for stoking the crisis.
Moreover, Beijing did not condemn the Kremlin’s invasion; earlier on Feb. 4, as Russian forces prepared to attack, Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed a major strategic agreement with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, further cementing the economic and diplomatic relationship between the two powers.
If Beijing’s support for Putin is tacit, Chinese social media have been filled with a loud outpour of pro-Russian sentiments. And prior to the invasion, Chinese state media accidentally published guidelines on how to handle the Russia-Ukraine conflict: to support Moscow and censor content that would present Russia in a negative light.
One now-deleted article by the pro-PRC SupChina website titled “Some Chinese men express their horniness for potential Ukrainian refugees, to the disgust of netizens” described a trend on Chinese social media that arose following the news that tens of thousands of refugees — the vast majority of them women due to the Ukrainian draft — were leaving the country.
Many Chinese had posted on social media that they wanted Ukrainian men to be killed so they could marry Ukrainian women. Such comments had made the rounds in Ukraine, further attracting the ire of Ukrainians towards China.
“It is we compatriots living far away in this battlezone who will have to price the price for your jokes!” one Twitter post says. “Do not push fellow Chinese into the flames!”
“Chinese living in Ukraine are in danger, especially [if they put up] the Chinese flag. This isn’t a Wolf Warrior movie,” another social media user wrote, referring to a jingoistic series of films about a Chinese special forces “wolf warrior” who operates overseas.
One Chinese woman living in Kiev described how she was harassed and followed for being Chinese while out trying to shop. She managed to shake off her follower and get home.