Lone anti-war activists in China are taking to the streets to challenge the dominance of pro-Russia voices on the tightly-controlled internet and state-run media, risking censorship and even persecution.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted condemnation across the world, as people join anti-war rallies and send donations to support the country’s resistance.
But in China, where the government has refused to take a stance, street demonstrations against the war could get one into serious trouble.
Despite Beijing’s reluctance to condemn Russia’s aggression and a flood of pro-Russian voices on social media, a few activists have been spotted in Chinese cities with banners calling for peace in Ukraine, according to photos shared on social media.
One activist, 24-year-old student Hiko, said he brought a banner that read “Bullets have no turning back, but you can put down your guns” to a crowded shopping district in the eastern city of Hangzhou, hoping to remind people of the cruelty of war.
From a public square, he was immediately taken into a police station on Saturday for questioning. But after being released, he managed to find a quieter corner to display the banner, Hiko told VICE World News, requesting the use of an alias to avoid further retaliation from the police.
“At least when people see my banner, they could have second thoughts about war,” the student said. “It’s not something that you should joke about.”
The responses were surprisingly friendly, Hiko said. Curious onlookers came to ask if he was Ukrainian. Several people gave him hugs, and some others told him to “add oil”—keep it up. Two women wanted to join his silent protest, but Hiko rejected them, worried it might draw police attention, he said.
The Chinese government, which has maintained a close partnership with Moscow, has refused to describe the war as an invasion. The foreign ministry has called the U.S. a “culprit” of the conflicts and criticized the sanctions against Russia.
Chinese state media and social platforms have also promoted pro-war, pro-Russian narratives.
On microblogging site Weibo, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s emotional speech justifying his military actions against Ukraine stoked a wave of comments praising Putin as a charming, decisive strongman leader. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on the other hand, has been mocked as a stupid comedian who is causing civilian deaths by asking people to fight.
Many argue it is the increasing threat from NATO that forced Russia to wage a war in defending his own country, the same rhetoric that Putin has propagated. They empathize with Putin’s worry, believing China is also suffering from hostility from the U.S.-led Western bloc.
Some others have made jokes about the war, equating Russia and Ukraine to two kids that got into a fist fight. People have joked that China would one day occupy Taiwan, an island Beijing claims to be its own territory, in the same way.
It’s hard to tell whether or not the nationalistic, Russian-friendly voices represent a majority.
Articles that criticize the invasion or document the devastation in Ukraine often get censored after they become widely shared, and those who hold a different view from the state tend to stay silent.
On Douyin, China’s TikTok, videos posted by Chinese students and workers that document the panic on the ground are also widely watched. Many commentators say they hope peace will resume soon.
Political protests are generally prohibited in China, and activists could be penalized for vague crimes such as “provoking troubles.” Demonstrators like Hiko got no coverage on state-controlled media outlets. A Weibo post showing pictures of Hiko and another anti-war activist in Hangzhou was removed on Tuesday after receiving a few hundred likes. It’s unclear what happened to the other person.
Hiko managed to stand on the street for about 10 hours over the weekend holding the anti-war banner. On Monday, he was again summoned by the police and warned against what police called “disturbance of public order.” But he said he planned to carry on the activism. “As long as the war does not stop, I will keep doing this,” he said.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.