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The idea of a bipolar world has been a driving force of China’s geopolitical agenda. This idea also aims to challenge the unipolar geopolitical system dominated by the United States. The Russian-Ukrainian war is a significant way of examining how the challenge is taken forward with China’s stance on neutrality and Ukraine backed up by the West, particularly US-led NATO. Whether it comes to backing Russia through votes in the United Nations or supplying arms to the country, China has refrained from taking a position and has somewhat maintained a path of ostensible neutrality. This has been necessitated by China's most pressing foreign policy priority: strategic rivalry with the US. China's approach towards the Ukraine crisis has straddled the line between avoiding open condemnation of Russia's conduct and chastising the United States as China's strategic adversary. (Pavey, 2023) Under international scrutiny, China has walked a tight line, stopping trade when dangers to Chinese interests required it, parroting Russian talking points when they fit with China's criticism of the US, and maintaining trade when the situation was favourable (Pavey, 2023)
Another important factor under the overall term of conflict reporting is media involvement, given its influence on the overall public mindset. However, through a communist form of governance and the state-owned media houses, China’s sentiment towards the war has been diluted and publicly planned. Though the Chinese leadership seemed as surprised as the rest of the world by Russia's invasion, it did not lead to any criticism of Moscow's actions, either then or now. China's state newspaper, the People's Daily, released a statement on the Chinese social media site Weibo days into the invasion, in which Beijing's embassy in Kyiv urged its residents in Ukraine to unify in the face of the deteriorating situation. (Cheung, 2022)
The People's Daily, along with most of China's media, had by then sided with Russia in the Ukraine war. (Kirby, 2022) On the other hand, Western Media has also not shied away from its influence on covering the war, whether through the glorification of NATO and its backing of Ukraine or applying Westernised liberal stances that other countries might have on the war. These forces have further added to the Chinese pressure of controlling the media on the coverage of its stance on the war. Comparing and examining the media, particularly print media, given its utmost increased accessibility is extremely crucial in understanding not only the impact it has created on global dynamics but also deepening the understanding of China’s stance on the war.
What is China’s Longstanding Media Identity?
China is continuously reassessing media rules and control, both over the media and individual media practitioners. Outlets operate under tight Communist Party control. The opening-up of the industry has extended to distribution and advertising, not to editorial content. However, there is leeway for independent coverage that is not perceived as threatening social stability or the Party. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has described President Xi Jinping as the "planet's leading censor and press freedom predator" (The Guardian, 2018) Government policies are aimed at achieving "complete hegemony over news coverage and the creation of an international media order heavily influenced by China". (BBC, 2011)
When China re-entered the global economy after decades of isolation, the leadership knew it needed to update its communication strategy. The West is no stranger to influence operations. "However, unlike in the West, China's Communist Party does not accept dissent." Instead, for China's authorities, journalism is defined by a narrative discipline that excludes anything but the party-approved version of events," journalists Lim and Bergin wrote in a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report. (Kumar, 2021)
The evolution of Chinese Media from a strict and controlled system to anti-west propaganda only goes on to show its importance in the Russian-Ukraine War given its broader narrative of the West leading the Ukrainian Front. Chinese news outlets accused the US of promoting the risk of war and inciting tension and violence in the area by labelling US warnings about a Russian invasion of Ukraine as "hype" and "propaganda." According to a Xinhua News Agency report, the United States supply of weapons to Ukraine under the guise of a Russian invasion is escalating tensions between the two nations. NATO's deployments to Eastern Europe in response to Russia's military drills were portrayed as confrontational, and the US was cautioned not to "play with fire." (Banerjee, 2022) A very important factor to consider here is the extreme ownership of media by the communist state, it is almost impossible to understand the overall public sentiment due to the seemingly outward and uniform public front, but the geopolitical implications that come with are rather translucent, which often add to China’s anti-west mindset.
A brief overview of China’s Role in Russian Ukraine War
In a 12-pointed position paper released by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China, on 24th February 2023, one year into the war. It stated that China respects the sovereignty of all the countries and so should every other state, referring to the United Nations Charter. It also criticised the “cold war mentality” a passive-aggressive move on taking a jab at the United States. “All parties should, following the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and bearing in mind the long-term peace and stability of the world, help forge a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture” was emphasised by China's Foreign Ministry in its 12-point plan of 23rd February 2023. Furthermore, it reiterated the importance of diplomacy and dialogue. Many of China's traditional talking points, such as encouraging both sides to begin peace negotiations, were repeated in the policy statement.
In terms of trade sanctions, China underlined that all parties should work hard to keep the current global economic system in place while emphasising that the global economy should not be used as a political instrument or weapon. It also sought to take joint measures required to alleviate the spillover effects of the crisis and prevent it from erecting barriers to global economic recovery by interrupting international cooperation in energy, banking, agricultural commerce, and transportation. But another perspective on Beijing's claim to neutrality could be seen to have seriously weakened by its failure to accept the nature of the war - it has so far avoided using the term "invasion" - as well as its diplomatic and economic backing for Moscow not only in its media reportage but also it's overall positioning in the war. (Gan & McCarthy, 2023)
China has portrayed itself as a neutral party in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis while maintaining exceptionally close relations with Russia. The US has claimed that China is providing armed assistance to Russia, but Beijing denies these claims and blames the US for worsening the crisis by shipping armaments to Ukraine. This race to the bottom has in a lot of ways created two narratives of the war, both that determine the geopolitical agendas of strongest competitors, the United States and China. Despite intense pressure from the West to condemn Russia's conflict in Ukraine, China has refused to take sides and instead positioned itself as a peacemaker. Could China start down this route by assisting in the quick resolution of the Ukrainian conflict? However, the situation could dramatically change if Russia were to use chemical or nuclear weapons. This is unlikely, as China has suggested to Russia at various levels of interaction including at the highest level. The diplomatic pleading will have less effect on Chinese calculations than the Western determination. (The Economist, 2022)
How has the media coverage in China addressed the dynamics between China, Russia, Ukraine and the West?
A review of news reports in Chinese mainstream media like People’s Daily, CGTN, CCTV, Xinhua, People’s Liberation Army Daily and China News Service gives a sense of pro-Russian reportage. (Banerjee, 2022) These are also means of creating a sense of pro-Russian neutrality and an anti-Western, especially anti-American narrative that China might be willing to create, to further its geopolitical agenda. Not only is this limited to domestic Chinese consumers but might also impact how the world interprets its reading of the Chinese Media, given its ambitious goal to create an increased global reach. Each media coverage carries out socio-political and geopolitical narratives disguised in the style of reporting and, in the case of Chinese media, reflects well-established policy viewpoints.
An article published by TRT World, a Turkish broadcasting house, reported that there were similarities between the media reportage styles in Russia and China, blaming the United States and its Western allies for sparking Moscow's onslaught on Kyiv. It also alleged that the Chinese Media continues to report diplomatic conversations between Kyiv and Moscow in a way that suggests Moscow prefers peace over military intervention. Chinese media additionally chose to portray video footage and images of migrants reportedly heading to Russia from eastern Ukraine, a portion of which is controlled by pro-Moscow rebels, rather than the millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to countries such as Poland, Kyiv's Western neighbour. (Sofuoglu, 2022) This in considerable ways also dilutes the claim that China has neutrality given the Party's overall communist control of Media. China might have portrayed itself as a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict, but the message it sends to its domestic audience reveals a different narrative. Aljazeera reported that the war is referred to as "a special military operation" and "the Russia-Ukraine crisis" by the state news outlet Xinhua, although it is never referred to as an invasion as previously discussed as a means of being neutral(Cheung, 2022).
Only three weeks after Russia invaded, CCTV, the state broadcaster, highlighted civilian deaths for the first time. In April 2022, official media reaffirmed the Russian conspiracy theory that the US is sponsoring the development of biological weapons in Ukraine, including migratory birds that may transmit avian illnesses in Russia. Chinese official media outlets have used their platforms to spread Russian propaganda. According to China Digital Times, a US-based bilingual news website, state channels mention Kremlin officials and Russian state media as their news sources and get regular state orders that shape their reporting. (Wade, 2022)
Another pervasive element in Chinese state media coverage is the portrayal of the US as discussed at the start of this section the cause of the dispute, which scholars say is part of a larger narrative promoted by Chinese diplomats and the government's propaganda. (Cheung, 2022) This may be viewed as a proxy information war waged by China. In the long run, China hopes that it could erode the credibility of the United States and the US-led international order. According to Double think lab, an East Asian hub to develop a one-stop disinformation website, the State tabloid Global Times coined the hashtag #UkraineCrisisInstigator to describe the United States and NATO and accused Washington of being the real aggressor working behind the scenes.
Whether it is its pseudo-pro-Russian reportage or the jabs taken at the United States and its Western Allies, it can be found that China has a highly crucial role to play in the War, given its economic power and the importance of its close ties with Russia. Another extremely important factor to note is, the ambition that the Chinese media has in terms of diluting the influence of the Western Media has geopolitically. It ensures that the reportage of this war counters the Western approach it also tries to undermine it. If the theory of Media politics, were to be applied here, the Chinese media may be used as a weapon for propaganda and information control under a communist authoritarian government such as that of China. The Chinese government may attempt to affect the public's perception by controlling the conflict narrative, emphasising certain viewpoints, and pushing narratives that coincide with its agenda. This control might take the form of restricting or downplaying certain facts, boosting others, and moulding conversations in general. Another inference that can be drawn here is that The Chinese media's coverage of the situation has focused on China and the West rather than Ukraine and Russia. In such a situation, China would like it to be seen as an honest broker keen on resolving the crisis rather than provoking it further against what it perceives as the common global good.
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