subtly chinas state media softens its tone on ukraine war - Subtly, China's state media softens its tone on Ukraine war

BEIJING (NYTIMES) – Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, China has mostly tried to publicly distance itself from the war’s carnage without criticising Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although that is still broadly true, observers on the Chinese mainland have noticed in recent days that their country’s state-run news media juggernaut – like the government itself – appears to be subtly shifting its tone on the war.

There is slightly less focus on Russia’s military might, observers say, and slightly more on peace talks and the civilian toll of Russian strikes. Russian state propaganda has also fallen in popularity on Weibo, a tightly censored Chinese social media network. On Thursday (March 17), the only top-trending Weibo item about the war was a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the United States Congress.

Dr Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in an interview on Friday that he had observed in recent days subtle shifts in Chinese official discourse about Ukraine.

“That’s based on a shift in public opinion” on the Chinese mainland, Dr Shi said.

In the early days of the war, coverage on Xinwenlianbo, an evening news programme of state-run broadcaster CCTV, mainly emphasised the dominance of the Russian military and its operation in Ukraine.

This week, however, there has been more footage of Mr Zelensky and more direct mention of Russian attacks.

A similar shift has been evident in coverage by CGTN America, the global arm of China’s state broadcaster.

“The dead bodies of people killed by Russian shelling lay covered across much of Ukraine,” CGTN America said on Twitter on Friday. “With the number of people fleeing the conflict growing to the millions and Russian shelling continuing, many fear the humanitarian disaster is far from over.”

Such posts may not indicate a shift in Chinese foreign policy.

“What China sympathises with is not Ukraine as a sovereign nation, but with the Ukrainian people,” Dr Shi said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 – and even as Russian forces have turned to shelling towns and cities – Chinese officials have blamed the US for the war and have echoed Mr Putin in criticising the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Chinese diplomats and state media organisations have also amplified Kremlin propaganda and a conspiracy theory about Pentagon-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine.

On Friday, as the news media in Europe and North America covered a Russian bombardment this week of a theatre in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a Chinese state broadcaster carried a report about what it said was a Ukrainian missile attack in Donetsk, a Russia-backed separatist region of Ukraine.