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Chinese citizens in Ukraine find themselves in a tense situation as plans for an evacuation from the war-torn country – set in motion weeks after Western nations urged their citizens to leave – have stalled, leaving those who remain wary about potential backlash over China’s reaction to the Russian invasion.
A plan for charter flights to evacuate citizens out of Ukraine was put on hold over the weekend as fighting in the country intensified, with China’s top envoy in Kyiv saying late Saturday that citizens now needed to “wait until it’s safe to go.”
“There are missiles in the air, explosions and guns on the ground, and the two armies are fighting each other…How is it possible to ensure safety (to leave) in such circumstances?” Ambassador Fan Xianrong said in a video posted to the embassy’s social media account on Saturday, three days after the Embassy released plans for evacuate flights.
Some 6,000 Chinese citizens are in Ukraine, according to China’s state media. Unlike nationals from many other countries, they did not receive instructions to leave the country before the invasion began, as Chinese officials pushed back on warnings from the US and its allies that a Russian attack was imminent.
But now, some of those who remain or who live permanently in the country have voiced concerns about their safety – and not only due to the intensifying conflict.
Beijing, which has fostered increasingly close ties with Moscow, has so far refused to condemn Russia outright, or describe its actions as an invasion. China’s state media has also adopted a pro-Russian viewpoint in its domestic coverage, while online posts in support of Ukraine and its President have been censored.
Meanwhile, there has been an outpouring of pro-Russian sentiment, as well as misogyny against Ukrainian women, on China’s highly restricted and censored social media, where nationalist voices typically dominate.
Such “disgusting comments” were later picked up by Ukrainian media, furthering suspicions of the Chinese community, according to Sun Guang, a Chinese vlogger who has lived in Ukraine for two decades and raised his family there with his wife, who is Ukrainian.
“As soon as they see me as a Chinese face, they think I’m here to sabotage or support Russia,” Sun told CNN, noting he was stopped and questioned by several residents when he went to buy groceries earlier that day.
“I don’t think the current situation in Ukraine is safe for Chinese,” he said, while calling on people online back in China to show greater empathy. “Ukraine is suffering from war, and people are dying every day,” he added.
A young man who described himself as a student in Ukraine also said in a social media post on Saturday that he and his friends were afraid to identify themselves as Chinese.
“In air-raid shelters & subways in Kyiv, people query Chinese students if they (agree with those comments online), making many students afraid to stay in the subway,” he said.
“I also want to apologize to Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian women,” he said.
China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo did take action – saying on Friday it removed 542 comments from 74 accounts for writing inappropriate remarks.
China’s Embassy has also walked back advice issued Thursday encouraging citizens to display Chinese flags on their cars for protection. On Friday, a statement on safety practices instead told Chinese citizens not to “identify yourself or display identifying signs.”
In his video address on Saturday, Fan, the ambassador, urged Chinese citizens in Ukraine not to “get into arguments with the locals” or “film out of curiosity.” He also struck a personal tone calling on Chinese citizens to “understand (Ukrainians’) feelings” and saying in plain language: “We respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Experts say that China’s decisions around plans for evacuation and changing recommendations may have been based on misplaced assessments about Russia’s agenda or miscalculations about how serious an invasion would be – or how quickly it would be over.
China pushed back, as late as February 18 – less than a week before Russian forces moved in from multiple directions – on US intelligence that an invasion could be imminent, amid denials from Moscow that it intended to invade.
“At that point, China may have felt it had the moral duty or obligation to provide political support to Russia…and discredit a Western ‘information campaign’ against Russia,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor and Provost’s Chair in International Relations at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who noted that this all played out on the heels of a meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“In that context, it would be very difficult for the Chinese authorities to seriously prepare and do anything for an evacuation of Chinese nationals in Ukraine, otherwise China’s words and actions wouldn’t match,” he said, adding Beijing may not have believed the invasion was imminent.
In response to a question about whether it has waited too long to urge citizens to leave, China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday said that it had “issued relevant safety warnings in a timely manner” and that the ministry and Embassy in Ukraine were “working day and night” to safeguard citizens.
As for whether the evacuation would continue, spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China was “working out all feasible plans to assist Chinese citizens in Ukraine with voluntary and safe evacuation” but the current security situation was “extremely unstable.”
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said China’s response may be due to an “underestimation” of the situation – as well as the determination of Western support for Ukraine and the capacity of Ukraine’s forces.
“They mostly thought the war would end in a very, very short period of time, maybe less than one week…and (Chinese citizens) would be protected under Russia’s (new) regime,” said Wu.
But now, there is a realization that “the war has two sides,” he said.