A 'Stop Putin' banner urges Russia to leave Ukraine in a London protest on February 27, 2022. Photo: Asia Times / Jeff Pao

Chinese netizens and academics have been urged by pro-Beijing researchers to be more responsible when commenting on the Russia-Ukraine war as China has opted to stay neutral in the conflict.

An article jointly published by five history professors in China was removed from the internet by Chinese censors on Saturday (February 26) evening as it opposed Russia’s attack on Ukraine for humanitarian reasons.

Without naming the five, a commentary written by a former Xinhua journalist said some Chinese people criticized Russia’s military operation as they did not understand geopolitics and international affairs.

Lei Xiying, chairman of the China Cross-Strait Academy, a Hong Kong-based research group, said Chinese netizens should mind their tongues as a recent article titled China welcomes beautiful Ukrainian women as refugees had been translated into English and used by foreign websites to attack China.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a presidential decree recognizing the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine on February 21, battles have emerged in key cities in Ukraine.

Over the past week, the European Union and the United States have imposed a series of sanctions against Russia, including freezing the overseas assets of Putin and Russian officials and billionaires, export controls on high-technology products to Russia and the removal of some Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system.

Early last week, Chinese state media said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastward expansion over the past few decades and US provocations were the main causes for Russia’s operation in Ukraine.

Protesters rally in London to oppose Russia’s attack on Ukraine, February 27, 2022. Similar protests were held across the world. Photo: Asia Times / Jeff Pao

On February 23, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, criticized the US for imposing sanctions on Russia. Hua said sanctions would not be able to resolve the Ukraine issue.

“Our position is that sanctions are never a fundamentally effective means to solve problems. We consistently oppose all illegal unilateral sanctions,” said Hua. “When handling the Ukraine issue and relations with Russia, the US mustn’t harm the legitimate rights and interests of China and other parties.”

However, on February 25, China started to distance itself from Russia, which has reportedly faced some setbacks in its military operations in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.

“China has been following the evolution of the Ukraine issue, and the present situation is something China does not want to see,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told top diplomats from the United Kingdom, France and the EU in phone calls on February 25.

“The safety of ordinary people’s lives and properties should be effectively safeguarded, and in particular, large-scale humanitarian crises have to be prevented.”

Wang said China saw it as “absolutely imperative” for all sides to exercise restraint to prevent the conflict from “getting out of control.”

On the same day, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a phone call with Putin to discuss the Ukrainian situation.

Xi reportedly urged all parties to completely abandon a Cold War mindset, respect and attach importance to each other’s legitimate security concerns, and strive for a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through dialogue and negotiation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping get friendly at a ceremony to present Xi with a degree from the St Petersburg State University on June 6, 2019. Photo: AFP / Dmitri Lovetsky

He reiterated that China’s position of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states and abiding by the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter had been consistent.

Xi said China was ready to work with all parties in the international community to promote common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and firmly uphold the UN-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law.

At 6 pm on Saturday, five history academics, led by Sun Jiang, a professor at Nanjing University, jointly published an article on the social media site Weixin criticizing Russia for attacking Ukraine.

The other four were Wang Lixin of Peking University, Xu Guoqi of the University of Hong Kong, Zhong Weimin of Tsinghua University and Chen Yan of Fudan University.

“The international community was shocked that a permanent member of the United Nations, a big country with nuclear weapons, would fight against a weak brother country,” they said. “Where is the war going? Will it lead to a massive world war? Great disasters in history often stem from local conflicts.

“Ruins, gunfire, refugees … Ukraine’s wounds remind us of the pain of China, a country that was once ravaged by war, families were destroyed, people died of starvation, land was ceded to pay indemnity … These sufferings and humiliations have shaped our historical consciousness, and we sympathize with the pain of the Ukrainian people,” they wrote.

The professors said they strongly opposed “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” which was a violation of the norms of international relations based on the UN Charter and a breach of the existing international security system.

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an invasion of the country. Photo: Screengrab / VCG

“We firmly support the actions of the Ukrainian people to defend their country. We are concerned that Russia’s acts of force will lead to turmoil in Europe and the entire world, and trigger wider humanitarian disasters,” they said, adding that the Ukraine war would bring enormous shame and disaster to the Russian nation.

The article was removed from Chinese social media at 7:30 pm the same day, while all previous articles on Sun’s Weixin account were removed.

On Sunday Ming Jinwei, a former journalist who left the Xinhua News Agency eight years ago, wrote an article titled “What’s the relation between Ukraine war and Chinese people?

Ming said some educated Chinese people were brainwashed by the US’ propaganda of “freedom, democracy and human rights” and influenced by the Western media’s “humanitarian values.”

“As Chinese people, we must have a basic judging ability. If you don’t understand the complexity of geopolitics and the reasons behind the problems, you should shut up, instead of saying something that is out of your expertise, echoing the US to condemn ‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’ or opposing the so-called war with a mindset of naive hipsters,” Ming said.

“People who are trapped by the US’ liberalism are hypocrites who forget the past,” he said, adding that the US caused a humanitarian crisis during its invasion of Iraq in 2003, while NATO killed three Chinese officers by bombing the People’s Republic of China embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Ming said Chinese people should not forget that British and American soldiers burned the Imperial Palace of the Qing government in 1860 and the Eight-Nation Alliance held a military parade in the Beijing palace in 1900, as well as Japan’s invasion of China.

He said China should stay neutral in the conflict between Russia and the US over the Ukraine issue and avoid giving the US any reason to attack China. He said Beijing should use this period to take a rest and resolve its economic bottleneck problems, and prepare for the possible return of “crazy Trump” in 2024.

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump could go toe-to-toe again after 2024 elections. Image: Facebook

Last Saturday, former US president Donald Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that he planned to run for president in 2024. Trump had earlier referred to Putin’s moves ahead of the Ukraine invasion as “savvy” and “genius.”

Meanwhile, Lei of the China Cross-Strait Academy in an article accused some Chinese netizens of posting inappropriate messages about the Ukraine issue. He said Chinese social media site Weibo had taken quick action to block 74 accounts that had used malicious words against the Ukrainian people.

Lei said Supchina.com, a New York-based website, published an article titled Some Chinese men express their horniness for potential Ukrainian refugees after a Chinese netizen said China welcomed beautiful Ukrainian women as refugees. He said the Chinese article and the translated copies had damaged China’s image.

Lei said Chinese people had to be responsible when commenting on foreign issues as their words could be used to attack China.

Read: Taiwan chipmakers weigh Russia-Ukraine war risks

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3