China reacted mutedly to allegations that Russian troops had committed atrocities against civilians in Ukraine as Beijing attempted to balance its support for Moscow with the growing fallout from the invasion.
While governments around the world condemned Russia after photos and videos emerged of unarmed people, some with their hands tied behind their backs, who had apparently been shot in Bucha near Kyiv following the retreat of Russian forces, the Chinese government remained silent on Monday morning.
Beijing has refused to define Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an invasion. Although it has expressed concern about the humanitarian consequences of the war and called for a peaceful resolution, Beijing has not censured Moscow and has parroted Russia’s arguments about its alleged security concerns.
The Chinese position is consistent with a partnership that is characterised as “limitless” by both countries’ leaders, based on their shared opposition to the US and its global influence.
Several state media did not mention the Bucha killings at all, while some reported only Moscow’s denials that Russian forces were involved.
On Chinese social media, posts containing the images remained available on Monday morning with a few users expressing horror at the news. But Chinese microblogging platform Weibo was filled with posts by prominent bloggers questioning the veracity of the photos of corpses and blaming the violence on Ukrainian “Nazi” fighters.
A Weibo user named Shiguang liushi de shijie asked why family members of the dead had not collected their bodies four days after Ukrainian troops had regained control of the area.
“No offence, but [ . . . ] try to be neutral and think about it,” the user wrote. “If you are a resident of Bucha, and someone in your family is missing, will you not come out and look for it? If you find the dead body of your family, will you let him continue to rot in the wilderness for 4 days?”
Another user with the handle Baorong wanwu heng heshui wrote: “Actually I am not surprised at all by the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha. As the Kyiv authorities handed out automatic weapons to everyone [including criminals released from prison], we should not be surprised at the consequences.”
However, a Weibo user whose handle indicated that he was based in Paris posted images from Bucha and added: “These videos and photos have already shocked the international community. French journalists who hurried to the scene to report found the location of the corpses.”
Another user with a portrait of Clint Eastwood as their icon wrote: “This has to be a turning point in the WAR . . . Outsiders have no way of knowing the truth of the incident, but the mutilation of civilians is a fact . . . The Russo-Ukrainian WAR has actually gone in a direction beyond the control of a certain emperor. This is not something that can be controlled by power. If the party who launched the WAR cannot occupy the moral commanding heights, the WAR will be difficult to continue.”
The post used the English word for war and used homophones for some words to avoid being found by censors.
Xinhua, the state news agency, did not carry any reports on Monday mentioning the killings of civilians.
On China Central Television, the Ukraine war was relegated to the end of the hourly news programme, as usual, while the atrocities in Bucha were not mentioned.
Global Times, the nationalist tabloid owned by party newspaper People’s Daily, quoted a CNN report about UN secretary-general António Guterres saying that an independent investigation of the killings was essential.
Additional reporting by Eleanor Olcott in Taipei