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China seems to be pro-Russia. Here's what that means for the war in Ukraine

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

To the rest of the world, China says it's staying neutral on the Russia-Ukraine war. Domestically, however, China is signaling that it is solidly pro-Russia. And as NPR's Emily Feng reports, what China does or does not do will have a strong bearing on the conflict.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Beijing-born software engineer Wang Jixian lives in Odesa in Ukraine's south. When the Russian bombs started falling on Ukraine, he chose to stay, and he's gathered a cult following on YouTube, where he is releasing daily videos highlighting the plight ordinary Ukrainians now face.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JIXIAN WANG: (Through interpreter) The Ukrainian people don't want war. Their soldiers used to be my colleagues, forced to take up arms. It's got nothing to do with NATO. People just want to live.

FENG: Wang also spoke openly about the lack of support from the Chinese embassy in evacuating from Ukraine. That candor quickly attracted death threats from his fellow citizens in China. Maria Repnikova, a communications professor at Georgia State University, says on some topics like the war, the overall Chinese media sphere has actually become more pro-Russia and anti-U.S.

MARIA REPNIKOVA: I think we see some convergence and some differences. When it comes to convergence, the anti-Western rhetoric and blaming NATO and the West and the U.S. in particular for basically instigating this whole conflict, that seems to be quite similar.

FENG: This is in contrast to China's official neutral stance on Russia's invasion. However, China's careful ambiguity is wearing thin because as more civilians die, the political costs of China's inaction grow. So now China is positioning itself as a potential cease-fire broker between Russia and Ukraine.

HUIYAO WANG: China can play more role to help to mediate the crisis.

FENG: This is Wang Huiyao, the director of CCG, a Communist Party-affiliated think tank in Beijing.

H WANG: We probably could have five-party talks - that, you know, Russian, Ukraine, EU, U.S., China - so that we can really have a better role for China to play.

FENG: It's unlikely Ukraine would see China as a neutral broker, however, because China just signed a partnership with Russia in February. Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the think tank Carnegie Moscow Center, says the war actually has a concrete upside for China - less U.S. attention on China.

ALEXANDER GABUEV: As brutal, as horrible as war in Ukraine is, it's a sideshow and a side story. It's a distraction for the U.S.

FENG: So he argues China will stick by Russia if the war continues because coming out against Russia has no guaranteed upside for China. Its relationship with the U.S. would be just as tense.

GABUEV: Everybody knows that the re-education camps in Xinjiang will stay, that freedom in Hong Kong will be the way it is and probably worse. So - and China is not changing its course overall. That doesn't remove the tensions between China and the U.S. overall.

FENG: Last week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson even copied a Russian claim, suggesting the U.S. was running bioweapon labs in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIJIAN ZHAO: (Through interpreter) According to reports, a large quantity of dangerous viruses are stored in these facilities. During their military operation, Russia discovered the U.S. uses these facilities to conduct bio-military plans.

FENG: The White House says this is all false but could be a sign Russia is preparing a chemical attack. Meanwhile, China's state broadcaster and news agency have only amplified the allegation, citing Russian defense intelligence.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.