Russia plunged China into a predicament when its forces rolled into Ukraine in February, weeks after the two nations reaffirmed their “no limits” friendship. On the global stage, Beijing has avoided openly supporting or condemning the invasion.
But on China’s heavily censored social media platforms, pro-invasion sentiments seemingly run rampant, with many posts and comments cheering on Russian President Vladimir Putin and condemning the West. Within the last two months, a fast-growing online translation campaign has emerged to make such content more visible to non-Chinese speakers — to the chagrin of the Chinese government, which experts say often has different messages for audiences at home versus abroad.
Since its Twitter account was created in early March, the Great Translation Movement has gained more than 135,000 followers and now receives hundreds of translations per day, submitted through direct messages.
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In written responses to NBC News via direct messages on Twitter, account moderators said they operate from countries around the world, but most of them have lived in China and are fluent in Chinese. The moderators — who said they didn’t even know one another’s identities or exact locations — spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of fines, detention or jail time for themselves or their family members in mainland China.
“Our goal is to raise awareness about the state of the public opinion in China,” they wrote. “Whether it is purely the result of spontaneous interactions of the Chinese people or a result of government censorship, manipulation and propaganda, we want the outside world to know what is going on inside there.”
Chinese state media have labeled the project a smear campaign and point out that online discourse in the West is also laden with extremist views. Critics also say the tone of some of the Twitter account’s posts could stoke hostility toward Chinese and other Asians around the world.
In a statement, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said “the information conveyed by the so-called Great Translation Movement is lopsided and does not truly reflect the whole picture.”
The moderators said they try to be as representative as possible by translating content that has lots of “likes” or comes from state media or influencers with millions of followers. Content is sourced primarily from Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, as well as the messaging app WeChat, Quora-like Zhihu and Douyin, the Chinese version of short-video app TikTok. To ensure the veracity of submissions, moderators say they request links to the original posts and archive them in case the content is deleted online.
Most of the content is translated into English, but the account also has posts in Japanese, German, Korean, French, Spanish and Arabic. It has also begun posting about Covid-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and other parts of China.
Pro-Ukraine posts and hashtags appear to have been suppressed on Chinese platforms, and Chinese state media have amplified disinformation and conspiracy theories that favor Russia.
Jason Wu, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University who specializes in Chinese ideology and public opinion, said that although extreme posts can prove popular on social media, China’s web of internet controls may also empower those with certain opinions to speak out more than others. That makes it risky to equate high engagement with true public opinion, he said.
The Chinese government has presented itself as neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, expressing concern about the humanitarian situation and calling for a peaceful solution without explicitly condemning Russia’s actions. But pro-Ukraine posts and hashtags appear to have been suppressed on Chinese platforms, and Chinese state media have amplified disinformation and conspiracy theories that favor Russia.
One volunteer translator wrote in a Chinese-language interview that the ruling Communist Party uses external propaganda to “glorify itself” and internal propaganda to “brainwash the masses.”
“The Chinese Communist Party has been supporting Russia, both explicitly and implicitly, in this war in Ukraine,” said the volunteer, a Chinese citizen who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested. “Public opinion propaganda leads to the conclusion that Russia is righteous and has no choice but to [invade]. As a result of this propaganda, many Chinese people do not understand the situation and support Russia.”
That includes many Chinese living overseas, said former Chinese diplomat Han Yang, who has lived in Australia since he was first stationed there in 1998. Many within Australia’s Chinese community, he said, rely heavily on Chinese state media for information and consume little to no English-language news.
The Chinese government has also spent billions on state media operations aimed at overseas audiences who speak English and other languages. But because internet users inside mainland China’s “Great Firewall” are cut off from many of the biggest foreign internet platforms — including Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube — it’s difficult for information to flow the other way.
“It’s a very asymmetrical information warfare being played by the Chinese side,” Yang said. “As you can see on Twitter, all these Chinese state media have hundreds of official accounts broadcasting their propaganda to the West every day, but we can’t get our message across to the 1.4 billion Chinese living inside China.”
He began tweeting his own translations of Chinese posts and comments, many of which have since been retweeted by the Great Translation Movement, after seeing an overwhelming amount of “pro-Russia and pro-China propaganda” in a WeChat group for the Chinese diaspora in Australia.
“You don’t see official propaganda in English because they are very honest, talking about the Chinese national interests, not the right and wrong of the invasion,” Yang said. “I think we should do more to put that in English so the world can better understand China’s position.”
While he shares the goals of the translation campaign, he said he disagrees with some of the members’ sentiments. One moderator of the Twitter account was quoted in a Chinese-language Deutsche Welle article saying they hoped to expose the “cruel” and “bloodthirsty” nature of the Chinese population. Yang said comments like these paint all Chinese people with a broad brush and give ammunition to Chinese state media outlets condemning the movement.
Wu said the state media backlash most likely stems from Beijing’s fear of losing control over its messaging. The Chinese government has long presented different content to domestic and foreign audiences, he said, and the translation campaign essentially creates a public relations crisis by violating those boundaries.
“People who don’t normally read Chinese get a sense of how exactly the state media outlets are trying to rally public opinion domestically, and that makes it harder for the party to say, ‘Well, we really are neutral,’” Wu said. “And it’s sort of unrealistic for them if they believe that they can have this one message for domestic audiences and not be overheard by the rest of the world.”