Timothy Liu has remained unusually quiet since the Ukrainian war began. The 25-year-old postgraduate student at a leading university in Beijing has not posted any messages about the war on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, for almost two weeks or discussed it with his classmates. “They basically all support Russia and Vladimir Putin and keep repeating rhetoric like ‘let Taiwan see what the future holds’,” said Liu, who did not want to disclose the name of his school for fear of retribution. “ Even the government has not talked like that but [many of my classmates] do believe in it and they are not shy to talk about it. I am also not talking with them for my own protection,” he added. Like most Chinese in the country, Liu relies on mainstream media for information but says he has his own “filters” to tell facts from propaganda. 20,000 foreign volunteers in Ukraine ‘to join fight against Russia’ “Probably both Chinese and Western media are biased but I have my own reference framework – just like many other people – so I do not really believe in what the authorities said,” he said. But Yuan Peng, a 24-year-old Didi driver in Guangzhou, is less certain. While he tends to share his friends’ view that Putin is a charismatic leader, he is unsure about the war. “It’s always wrong to start a war as innocent people get killed,” Yuan said. “But many people said on Weibo and Douyin [a popular messaging platform] that this war was because Ukraine wanted to become a member of Nato and therefore Ukraine deserved the attacks. But this is a bit confusing. Why are other people so certain?” he asked. A teacher at a journalism school in southern China, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said she got a mixed response from her class of 40, with about a quarter saying they supported Putin. But no one raised their hands when she asked if they supported Ukraine, so she asked them if they “think it is dangerous to show support for Ukraine and therefore didn’t want to show which side you support”. She added “some of them agreed by nodding their heads”. Although many people have posted their views on the conflict on China’s vast – but heavily censored – social media platforms, Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a former journalist with Guangzhou-based liberal newspaper Southern Weekly, warned not to read too much into those messages. “Academic studies have found that only 1 per cent of the users would actively post on social media platforms. And in this specific context, I believe those who are more hawkish and chauvinistic people are much more likely to post than others. China’s state news agency says US fed lies to media over Ukraine plans “Also, the government is actively censoring posts that are overtly critical of Russia. So we should be very cautious in drawing any conclusion from Weibo data,” he said. “I do believe that there is a strong pro-Russia view on Weibo. The most important reason is that many are buying into the official narrative that Nato and the US have pushed Russia into starting the war, and that if China does not support Russia, Nato will become a threat to China. “This simplistic narrative motivates many to accept and spread misinformation that favours Russia,” Fang said. “Chinese internet companies play an important role in amplifying the misinformation. Just like Facebook and Twitter, the product design and algorithm of Weibo, WeChat, Douyin, and other platforms incentivise the spread of misinformation. “But the platforms also benefit from it because they gain more traffic and advertising revenue. The platforms have to comply with government directives when it comes to censorship, but exploiting misinformation for their own benefit is their own choice.” But there are also things that get through the censorship dragnet. Last Thursday, an open letter signed by over 200 alumni of Tsinghua University – most of whom lived in China – circulated on WeChat calling on the university to strip Putin of an honorary doctorate awarded in 2019. China sends first shipment of humanitarian aid to Ukraine “Putin is a war-monger who has waged wars against Chechnya, Crimea, Georgia and, most recently, brazenly launched a war against Ukraine, a war of aggression that has been opposed and condemned by the vast majority of countries around the world,” the letter said. Ye Sizhou, a computer software engineer based in Pennsylvania, was one of the initiators of the open letter. He said he started the campaign to encourage more people to take a stand and provide a cover for others who don’t feel safe to speak out in China. “Our appeal represents the will of a significant portion of Tsinghua alumni. We do not expect the appeal to bring substantial results, but we hope that more people will know there are many Chinese who are on the side of humanity, strongly condemn Putin and the Russian army for launching the invasion, and we firmly support the Ukrainian people’s fight,” Ye said.