The news came as a surprise to many in Beijing. Barely 24 hours ago, Chinese pundits predicted that a war in Ukraine was not inevitable. In New York, as Russia geared up for a full-on assault on its neighbour, China’s UN envoy, Zhang Jun, urged in a security council meeting that “the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine issue is not fully shut, nor should it be shut”.
But when people in Kyiv woke up to sound of bombs in what the Nato chief called a “deliberate, cold-blooded” invasion, the door had clearly been closed. China’s state media, however, insisted it was a “special military action” by Russia. Quoting Vladimir Putin, China’s central television tweeted: “Russia was left with no other choice.”
Chinese netizens were fascinated by Russia’s move. Three weeks ago, Putin was the guest of honour at the Beijing Winter Olympics. On 4 February, he and Xi Jinping pledged that there would be “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” in their bilateral relationship. On Thursday, millions took to the social media site Weibo to discuss it. So much so, a new phrase was coined: Wu Xin Gong Zuo（乌心工作）to describe those who were so concerned with the situation in Ukraine they could not focus on work.
The reality on the ground contrasted with the official Chinese media narrative, yet it also offered a glimpse into the tightrope Beijing is walking. On Thursday, as she refused to use the word “invasion” to describe Russia’s action, the foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, also indicated that China would not provide arms to Russia. “I believe that as a strong country, Russia doesn’t need China or other countries to provide weapons to it,” she said.
Bonny Lin, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, said “Besides China’s effort to balance its various goals, all indications point to the fact that China prioritises its relationship with Russia at…