China on Russia: looking at Weibo

Matthew McKeever
7 min readFeb 12, 2023

A month or so ago, I took a look at the English language RT twitter feed and noticed an interesting number of pro-China stories. I subsequently explored whether the feeling was mutual by looking at the Chinese language RT on Weibo, noting some popular stories as well as a strange affinity for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Thinking this was kind of interesting, I made a bot that finds and tweets, each day, the RT Weibo post that has received the most reactions at the time the bot runs, which is the morning Beijing time after the day in question (stories continue to accrue reactions after that day, which explains why the totals are different from the ones you’ll see if you look at the stories today).

It’s been running for about a month (I forget a couple of days, it looks like, and the date/time is going to be confusing for timezone reasons among others). I just collected up the stories the bot posted, and parenthesis aside it does represent a roughly 28 day period of the most popular stories. Here’s some things that seem noteworthy.

The most interacted with story had 4561 reacts; the least, 183; the average, around 1000. Here are the top five by reaction count.

Story 1. 4561 reactions. [#Ukraine hopes that China will change its position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict] In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 19, Ukrainian President’s Chief of Staff Yermak said that his government hopes that China will change its position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Yermak said: “”China is not so much supporting Russia as it is not supporting Ukraine. We are working on it and hope that this situation will change. We see an opportunity (to change China’s position) right in the peace plan proposed by President Zelensky, of which at least two points are very important for China.

Yermak added that Ukrainian First Lady Zelenskaya, who attended the Davos Forum, handed over to the Chinese delegation a personal letter from Zelensky describing the main provisions of the “”peace plan””. “”We look forward to China’s reaction,”” he said.

In mid-November 2022, Zelensky presented a 10-point “”peace plan”” to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in a video link from the G20 summit. The main elements include ensuring nuclear and radiation safety, ensuring Ukrainian food exports, ensuring energy security, releasing all prisoners and deportees, restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and complete withdrawal of Russian troops.

Among the most positive user comments in the comments section include

The biggest supporter of Ukraine is a country that regards China as its biggest enemy. Want China to support its greatest enemy against its greatest friend? What is the logic

And several pointing out that Ukraine voiced support for Taiwan and thus their expecting support from China is cheeky.

The second most popular:

Story 2. 3186 reactions. “The U.S. State Department will allocate $150,000 for a project to promote American values in China, RT reported exclusively on Jan. 19.

The grant document specifies, “”The goal of the program is that by the end of the project, the target audience will demonstrate a deep understanding of American values and culture and a deeper appreciation for the role of the arts in facilitating discussions among individuals, civil society organizations, and authorities about the challenges facing society today.””

The document emphasizes that the project’s contracting agency will promote American values by organizing and hosting street art exhibitions and creating related digital products (videos, social media messages, online programs), whose key themes will include “democracy and human rights,” “equality,” “Inclusion,” etc.

The reactions, as far as I can tell, are mostly, as one would expect, negative, but to be honest they involve idioms/references that I don’t get.

Story 3. 2390. [#Russian rescue teams to Turkey and Syria] On February 6, local time, rescue teams from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations are on their way to Turkey and Syria. In addition, search and rescue dogs will also be sent to the earthquake-affected areas.

Again, positive reaction. There have been a lot of stories about Chinese rescue teams in the Chinese news of late.

Story 4. Reactions 1649. [Lavrov: #Ukrainian troops must retreat to an area where they cannot pose a threat to Russian territory] In an interview with RIA Novosti on February 2, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “What Russia seeks is for Ukraine to retreat its troops to an area where they cannot pose a threat to Russian territory. And the more long-range weapons (from other countries) are supplied to Ukraine, the farther the Ukrainian army must withdraw from Russian territory.”

Noticeably this is the first non-China-involving invasion story. And the comments are extremely anti-Russia:

I dare say that the neighboring countries should have no army and no weapons to meet your requirements, right?

One talks about ‘Nazi’ Russia and another

You can cede the land to Ukraine, then you will have a safe distance from Ukraine

To ‘good ideas’ and smileys from responders.

The dialogue quoted immediately above in text.

Story 5. 1582. [#Ukrainian Armed Forces shoot surrendered Russian servicemen] On February 9, a video circulating on the Internet showed a man with a machine gun asking a surrendered serviceman lying on the ground where he was from in Ukrainian, then shooting him in the head without waiting for an answer.

Then another soldier on the ground, also believed to be from Russia, was similarly shot and killed. Judging from the conversation between the Ukrainian militants, he was holding a hand grenade. A total of three surrendered soldiers appear in the video.

There is now multiple evidence that Ukrainian militants killed the surrendered Russian servicemen on the spot.

The reacts are notably different:

Fascism must be completely eradicated and Ukraine must be liberated from fascism to prevent such tragedies from happening again

A sentiment repeated in various ways.

More generally, looking through the reactions one will see pro- as opposed to anti-Russian sentiment much more frequently; the preceding story is an interesting outlier.

Some others

A central aspect of Russia’s worldview is anti-Western sentiment. It is, it seems to me, somewhat interesting to note how it gets presented and reacted-to here. Around the 20th of January, for example, there’s a story about George Soros paying to control the media; it received 650 reactions. A Medvedev diatribe about Zelensky gets 468. A similarly meat-and-potatoes propaganda line about Ukraine being an ‘Anglo-Saxon-funded Nazi state’ gets 535.

The point is, these are all below average. These stories, again crucial to the way Russia presents the world, are tepidly received. It’s notable, in this light, that the biggest story of the last month, the giving of tanks to Ukraine, didn’t receive all that much attention. If you search the term 坦克 you’ll see many stories about tanks but not many of them with lots of reactions. It simply doesn’t seem that the RT Weibo readers care.

(There’s a notable exception which reveals the limitations of my method: on 2/2 there’s a Putin speech with the text:

“Unbelievable!” Germany will aid the Ukrainian Leopard Tank Comments#] On February 2, when President Putin talked about Germany’s aid to the Ukrainian Leopard tank in his speech “Commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Victory in the Battle of Stalingrad” Said: “Unbelievable! Unbelievable! But it has become a fact that German Panther tanks with the Iron Cross mark will once again fight Russia on Ukrainian soil.” President Putin also said, “We are not sending more tanks to the western border, but ‘we have something to respond, armored vehicles — not the end’

It has received around 4k reactions as of today. Why does it not show up in my list? I don’t know. Possibly it had fewer reactions on the day I looked, but also possibly there’s just an error somewhere. Unsure — but it’s a sign to caveat lector.)

Why is this (potentially) interesting? A couple of reasons, at least. First, consider what we looked at: stories, and their reactions. The stories (presumably, I don’t quite know the relationship between the RT Weibo and other RTs) come from pro-Russia people attempting to appeal to Chinese people. So: how do they do that? How does Russia face east in popular media? That can tell us stuff about Russia. Second, the reactions: presuming that it’s only Sinophone and thus predominantly Chinese people reading RT Weibo, it tells us how that (small, unrepresentative!) set of Chinese people feel about Russia, or at least how they feel about what Russian media tells them.

So it offers insights into both sides. As to the first side: the RT editors try to propagate the standard fare, namely valorizing Russia and putting down the West, interspersed with stories about China. As to the second: the RT readers don’t really go for that standard fare, showing little interest in Russian anti-Westism but retaining an interest in stories, especially featuring the US, that China figures in. In the case of Ukraine asking for Chinese support, it’s noteworthy how the terms of the issue were switched to a China-centric framework with talk of Taiwan.

It’s of course much too anecdotal and limited to draw any real conclusions, but the received wisdom or stereotype that China is little concerned with matters beyond its borders that don’t concern it (compared to the stereotype of the US as enthusiastically being the world’s police) seems to show up in this little microcosm, and regardless the project of looking at Chinese social media sentiment seems like a worthy occupation.