How Do Chinese Citizens View Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

It’s widely recognized that China is facing a difficult balancing act in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the international stage, China doesn’t want to jeopardize its strong friendship with Russia, perhaps China’s most critical security partner. In refusing to condemn Russian aggression, however, China is drawing the ire of nations it relies upon for trade and continued economic prosperity.

Squaring this circle is difficult enough. What gets lost in these discussions of Chinese grand strategy, however, is an appreciation for the perspectives of everyday citizens of the PRC.

China’s domestic propaganda efforts have favored Russian perspectives and privileged official Russian sources, although we have seen shifts at times. Given this media environment, how are everyday Chinese citizens seeing the ongoing war in Ukraine? Do they sympathize with the victims of an invasion, or do they support Russia‘s so-called “special military operation”?

To answer these questions, we decided to add questions to the March rollout of our regular China From the Ground Up surveys that examined everyday Chinese opinions towards Ukraine. We asked a little over 1,000 survey-takers to what level they would support or oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine and what the proper position for China to take would be. It is important to note that these responses came in early in the war (mid-March to the beginning of April), and opinion may be changing as events evolve.

① Chinese Respondents Largely Favor Russia, but Want Neutrality in Action

Do you Support Russia?
What Position should China Take?

At first glance, support for Russia amongst the Chinese public is readily apparent. Only 25% of respondents in our survey oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and a full 40% are in support. 35% neither support nor oppose, perhaps indicative of a lack of information and fully formed opinions in the early stage of the war. However, it might also indicate a lack of desire to see China enmeshed in this European conflict, as reflected in the 55% of respondents who wished to see China remain neutral and 14% of respondents who wanted China to stay silent. This aligns with China’s stated position which, despite propaganda favoring the Russian perspective, emphasizes an official stance of neutrality.

Despite the widespread support for Russia in the abstract, only 26% of respondents wanted China to take concrete action to support Russia’s actions. Even among those who support Russia, relatively few want to see China shed blood or spend treasure on Russia’s behalf.

Support for Russia by Education

One somewhat surprising but predictive demographic correlate of support for Russia is education. A majority of highly educated respondents supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and more commonly advocated supporting Russia directly. Those with less education seem less enthusiastic about supporting Russia.

② Chinese Respondents’ Views toward Russia Correlate with their Views on Taiwan and Perceived U.S. Containment

To take a deeper look, we examined how respondents’ outlook on China’s foreign policy and China’s relations with the U.S. were correlated with support for Russia. Respondents who favored a more aggressive, nationalistic foreign policy were more likely to support the invasion, as did individuals who felt China needed to escape U.S. containment and favored a military route to reunification with Taiwan . Evidence also suggests that those who believe the U.S. media to be very negative toward China were more likely to support Russia.

Support for Russia by Attitude towards Taiwan

Survey Question: "Even if the military conditions are ripe, the use of force to unify Taiwan should be avoided as much as possible."

Support for Russia by Attitude towards Containment

Survey Question: "The core of China's diplomatic strategy is to break through the containment of China by Western countries led by the United States."

Clearly, favoring Russia over Ukraine seems to be part of a broader package of supporting a more aggressive, anti-U.S. foreign policy among everyday Chinese citizens. Some Chinese citizens seemingly identified with Russia because they think that China’s biggest diplomatic objective is to “liberate“ Taiwan and to break through containment imposed by western countries.

This data has interesting implications. On one hand, the largest group of Chinese citizens express abstract support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This might show that China has significant support from the public in moves that make it a bulwark of international support for Russia. There are also words of warning for Beijing in this survey, however. The largest group of respondents are reluctant to see China explicitly take a side in this conflict, and would rather China keep its powder dry than see China expend energy and resources supporting a faraway conflict.

Support for Russia is highly related to views on unification with Taiwan and fears of containment by the U.S. While a drastic turnaround by China on the Russia issue may be unlikely to occur, this survey does provide some evidence that Chinese public opinion may not be so unequivocally in Russia’s favor. This is especially the case with those Chinese citizens who wanted no war with Taiwan and did not perceive U.S. actions to be motivated by containment. In spite of one-sided propaganda, the Chinese public remains circumspect, and large numbers of them are not ready to commit to Russia. In other words, support for Russia’s war is hardly a unifying force.

Authors

Molly Roberts, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, UC San Diego; Co-Director, China Data Lab at the 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

Harris Doshay, Assistant Director of Research and Writing, 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy