Bund to Brooklyn

Episode 11: Chinese Social Media and Ukraine with Mengyu Dong

Episode Summary

On Episode 11 we're joined by journalist Mengyu Dong, who writes about technology, women’s rights, and the Chinese diaspora, to examine the nuances of Chinese social media through the lens of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. While Western social media users emphasize their support of Ukraine's defense of their homeland, the restrictive Chinese digital landscape requires a more detailed examination to uncover the true views of its netizens. NOTE: This episode was recorded on 4/3. Please note that the situation in Ukraine and Shanghai's COVID response (which we briefly discuss in the introduction) is quickly evolving.

Episode Notes

Lucia and Caiwei discuss the rise in COVID cases in Shanghai. (0:34)

Mengyu joins the conversation and gives us an introduction on the Chinese digital sentiment around the Ukraine/Russia conflict. (4:58)

We explore angles that state-sponsored media utilize in framing the conflict.  (5:00)

Are both Western and Chinese social media outlets using this conflict as a reason to drive a further wedge between cultures? (14:42)

How are average netizens on Weibo trying to help people impacted by the conflict? (18:19)

Does the Chinese gov's support of Russia impact the Western perception of Asian Americans? (21:56)

How do average netizens in China try to show their support for Ukraine? (25:48)



Mengyu's Twitter

Mengyu's Twitter thread on Chinese digital expression of sympathy to Ukraine

Taobao purchases of Ukraine pins


Follow us on IG: @bundtobrooklyn

Follow us on Twitter: @bundtobrooklyn

Questions? Requests? E-mail us @ b2b@1990institute.org

Learn more about the 1990 Institute

Episode Transcription


[00:00:00] Hi, everyone. Welcome to episode 11 of been to Brooklyn. Today. We are chatting with a journalist who is based in London. Her name is and she writes about technology women's rights and the Chinese diaspora. Before we dive into our conversation with Molly. So wait, I wanted to check in with you to see how your family is since currently. 

[00:00:41] I know there's been a lot of lockdowns in China due to COVID personally, like my parents are in Shanghai and they're actually locked down in to two separate places. So I wanted to check in on you to see how things were. Oh, thank you. My family are actually in whole bay right now where COVID originally started and I think it's still like pretty chilled there, but I do have an aunt and uncle currently in Shanghai and they are also. 

[00:01:08] In the lockdown, they report it back and say, um, the, the vegetables are so expensive for a mobile orders. And this is something a lot of people are experiencing. As we know, although most countries are going for coexisting with the omic wrong variety. Right now, China is still doing this Hartline zero tolerance thing. 

[00:01:29] Now that has a lot to, a lot of controversy did disagreements. Yeah. Just a lot of people isolated from each other. Yeah. Yeah. I think what's funny is my mom was sharing me these like memes that were going around Shanghai, just like kind of making fun of the situation. Cause like, I think Shanghainese people were like, okay, well what are we going to do? 

[00:01:50] We can't really. Protest against this. So there's like all these like funny memes that are passing around China or like Shanghai, and one of them is they all get like, they're a little COVID tester. Right. And so it kind of looks like a pregnancy test. So it's like, if it's one line you're negative, if it's two lines or positive, And so like her friends would like take the test and they'll be like, they're like not pregnant. 

[00:02:18] And then, and then they'll be like, oh, it's. Cause we had, we used a lot of protection. Right, right. Because the solve tasking kit is though a relatively new, just got introduced to Chinese people. So, um, I've seen like, Experts introducing how to use it. They're like, oh, it's just like the proxy tasks. Um, and I find that funny and like another favorite meme thing I'm enjoying is people making fun of Shanghai niece, right? 

[00:02:48] Because Shanghai people are considered to be the most boogy posh, and I'll watch. Yes in China. Yes. Yes. It's true. It's all of it is true. We don't like people who are like, not from Shanghai. We call them, we call them white theater, like outsiders, and I've see like beams about like Shanghainese people, even like quarantined at home. 

[00:03:12] They have to drink coffee every day and like they have that delivered to their homes. So like that doesn't happen anywhere else in China. That is so funny. And I would not put a passenger. I here needs people cause they don't are like that. I hope like all the, I've seen a lot of like mutual aid requests, a way of like elderly people that needs their lake chemos or some certain physical therapy that they're getting. 

[00:03:41] And they are not allowed to go out because of the very, like strictly executed unenforced quarantine policies. So I do hope all these people can get the help they need and everyone in Shanghai stays safe. Various serious highway. Yes, I agree. I agree. I mean, I think that's like mostly what's going on right now in the world. 

[00:04:04] Besides another thing that we're actually talking to you about later on in this conversation, which is around the conflict in Ukraine, and we talk largely around how. Netizens from both countries are really facing this sort of crisis and what we can sort of do to cut through a lot of the noise that's online to really understand what's happening on the grounds. 

[00:04:27] And if you have any questions that you want to email us, we're at b2b@nineteenninetyinstitute.org. Be sure to follow us on Instagram or a Twitter where at Bunda Brooklyn. So without further ado here is all right onto the episode. So today, where was a journalist based in London to discuss the Chinese social media's reaction and response to the Russia Ukraine war. 

[00:05:10] And Malia came introduce herself. Yeah. Hi, my name is and it's my first time on this podcast, bound to Brooklyn, and it's really nice to virtually meet all of you here. It's great to meet you too. I think we're gonna start off with a quick intro of what is like the landscape is because we definitely been seeing a lot of buzz around Ukraine and all the social media. 

[00:05:35] Were you seeing in both like the us and Chinese contacts? Cause we all know like Chinese government is taking a vaguely ambiguous stance that is more pro Russia. And although they have a, like officially denounced what the UIs and NATO is doing, the China's stance has I of course trigger a lot of Western backlash, even some like rumor at sanctions on Chinese business. 

[00:06:02] So I'm only UK, you introduced this landscape a little bit and tell us more about it. Oh yeah, sure. Like in, in other countries, I think the response from Chinese internet towards, uh, the war in Ukraine has been a really complex. On the one hand we see, like, there are a lot of pro Putin, pro Russia voices from a web boy and we chat and also of course, other social media, but at the same time, there are also very sympathetic voices towards Ukraine. 

[00:06:30] Um, the difference is that of course, discussion on Chinese new. It's controlled in the sense that some voices are given more waste than others. And for example, there, there are many pro Ukraine voices that were censored, especially in early days of the war, whereas the pro-Russia voices are allowed to remain online. 

[00:06:51] So in a way that I think in general, people feel like a lot of the sentiment from Chinese internet has been. There one sidedly pro-Russia but in reality, we see that there are actually voices from both sides. Um, personally, I've observed that a lot of the, the pro Ukrainian voices, especially from like the first week or two, since the war started. 

[00:07:15] They have a hard time sticking on Chinese social media because the post got taken down by sensors or in other ways, limited from being able to reach a wider audience. So I personally started a Twitter thread documenting some of the posts that I noticed on Chinese internet that are pro Ukraine and are. 

[00:07:37] Later taken down or met with other types of censorship techniques that I restricted from being able to reach a wider audience. And some, some of them are written by Chinese people, guys who are living in Ukraine and others are just from self identified bloggers that are more sympathetic to the Ukrainian people. 

[00:07:59] And we did notice that a lot of these, like anti-war. Uh, voices and videos. It's really hard to survive on Chinese social media plus. And I'm sorry. I wanted to interject with a question around like the themes around anti-war like, when you talked about people making videos or commenting around pro Ukraine, sentiments, like what was sort of the sentiment, like, I guess just help me understand from an American perspective who doesn't like truly see a lot of the other side of like pro Russia, like to, just to help understand like the pro Ukraine sentiment. 

[00:08:40] Yeah, sure. I mean, there are, I would say. Roughly three categories of these messages. The first one are like news reporting about like anti-war protests in Russia earlier. There were, there were videos that showed a large-scale anti-war protests that happened in St. Petersburg on different platforms across Chinese social media. 

[00:09:04] And that video got taken down pretty quickly after I think generating thousands of views on, on Chinese internet. So that's one category. And the second category is like, like you mentioned, the people were saying denouncing the war from the angle. That's how hurts the innocent people. It, all of Ukraine, that's the second category. 

[00:09:24] And the third category would be like translations of like anti war messages and open letters from Russian into. And the thing there, there was this joint letter that were assigned by a thousands of Russian scientists that were first circulating on Russian internet before being translated and re posted on some of the, which had blogs. 

[00:09:46] And we booked. And that one got taken down there fast. Um, why do you think, I guess the like take down of those particular posts? Yeah, I think that, like, I it's, it's quite interesting. I think the first category where there are videos showing anti-war protests, especially in Russia, and as we know that it's discouraged and in China to voice your political dissent on the street. 

[00:10:12] So I would say that it's, it's possible that the government doesn't want to encourage people to do. And in fact that we actually see, in some instances, there are anti-war protestors in China who took it to the street and that happens. And I think in trenching and in Hong Joelle. So that's something, obviously it is not encouraged by the government. 

[00:10:35] So the first sentence, the first category, it's like a really tricky and sensitive. Um, yeah, and I think in general, like, especially in the, in the early days, I feel like the government or the sensors are trying to steer the discourse towards a one direction, which would be contradictory if they show there are anti-war voices in Russia as well. 

[00:11:03] Yeah. Got it. And like what sort of general direction are you sort of seeing in like Chinese media? Because I think we opened up. Particular discussion saying that China hasn't been like explicitly, like we'll send troops to help Russia. Right? Like they're not like that supportive, but they're also kind of like, yeah, we'll stand behind Russia. 

[00:11:25] Or like, will we support Russia as allies? Right. We're like buddies. So like, just help me understand, I guess what the. Um, sentiment is from like a media and government perspective. Yeah. I would say that in general, the reports we see from the state's official media, they're not shying away from the, like the casualty of the war. 

[00:11:50] Or the sufferings of the innocent civilians. But, uh, at the same time, personally, I feel like there are trying to assign blame to the NATO and the U S in a way that are explaining this war as a result of a Russian response to the natal suspension, or trying to the discussion has been framed from this. 

[00:12:11] Yeah, I agree. So like, what I'm hearing is that like, what is not allowed to Sprott on social media is not like sympathy for graying and like people in Ukraine per se, but like the, the attempt to attach, like the casualty in the war, what like Russia or like Russia committed. Uh, crime against the innocence of civilians. 

[00:12:34] Right? So I'm all, you has like a really good Twitter threat documenting this, the posts and articles that are spreading on Chinese social media that got taken down in the first or two days off the discussion. And we will link that in the description. Yeah. Thanks, Howard. And I, I think, I, I agree with you that the online discussion has a lot of the posts that. 

[00:12:58] If you just express some of the, for Ukrainian civilians per se, that likely would not trigger censorship. But at the same time, I feel like on a more general level, the government has been trying to frame the discussion in a way that's what blame the war as a result of NATO expansion, where saying. Like responses from the Chinese foreign ministry, for example, saying that, look, this is what happens when you corner a big country like Russia. 

[00:13:28] So that they're in a way, I think they're trying to find an like a, almost like an excuse for Russia, like saying that they have their, their ha have no other choice, but to, to start this war basically. And how are you, I guess seeing the news that is in America, right? Like. You're here in the states right now. 

[00:13:49] And then take away your, you also live in this state. It's like viewing the media here and comparing it to the media in China. Like how does that sort of compare? Yeah, I think not just the present of stage, but like English language media in general has been overwhelmingly sympathy. Towards Ukraine. So that's something that in stark contrast to what we're seeing in many Chinese language media, they were a NATO country, right? 

[00:14:15] Like we find Nate like more than half of NATO. I definitely see that contrast too is pretty drastic. How. Average person or like the like mainstream media are portraying the same war happening at the same time. What I'm seeing that is unfortunate is that actually like the two countries are doing a very similar thing is to kind of like villainize your opponent. 

[00:14:42] And I'm seeing that this like two camps start to form a cold war, like confrontation between like the natal, the so-called white. And China. So, and that is something. Like that is something, not just Chinese state media, Chinese sensors, and also Western media are somehow encouraging that I find not helpful. 

[00:15:06] Right. I think like a week or so ago, we see though Shane, the state media CGT is anchor. She posted a Twitter or something like a friends. I think it was something like help us fight your friends so we can focus on how to you later. Yeah, something like that basically implying the enemy of your enemy is your first. 

[00:15:29] Right. It's, it's a really popular Chinese saying, right? Like if you, if you've ever watched like the old, like, I don't know, stratagems like since being fat or like in the art of war or single ye romance of the three kingdoms, like they're all they like consistently talking about this type of strategy, which is like, The uterine did the internet, she needed to pay up the enemy of your enemies is your friend. 

[00:15:52] But like, I hear you guys in terms of like right now, to me, what it sounds like is in China, right? There are people who sympathize with the fact that like, people are dying in Ukraine, right? Like that's just, I think bottom line bat and people are like, they think that like Russia was probably like pushed into a corner, which. 

[00:16:15] I think probably has some factual truth to that. Right. And then in the, in the states, the media is really saying no, like in a Russia as this like hairy beast that like needs to be tamed and like, we need to control everything that's happening. And like China's trying to ally with them and there are enemies too. 

[00:16:34] So like what would be more helpful in terms of like these two very. Disparate ways of thinking. And like, as part of this podcast, like the whole point is to like, be able to bridge cultures and like help people understand each other. And I think this like blaming each other, or I think not thinking about it from their angle, like what would be more helpful? 

[00:16:59] To like, have parties to understand, like, if someone who is listening to this podcast, like they're inundated with this American media where they're like, I stand with Ukraine, like anti-Russia, anti-China like, what can that type of person do? And like, what's kind of conducive for them to understand like both cultures, like what's what can somebody who's like, kind of in the middle, like all of us, right? 

[00:17:24] Like I was born in China that I live in the states like her Chinese American. Help bridge this like great divide. Whoa. These are big, big classes. I do think I personally have seen a lot of powerful moves and initiatives started by people targeted at other people. So like when we're thinking from a geopolitical level, especially like what Chinese censors are doing more and more just to kind of like force people to think in a binary right. 

[00:17:54] To site with either. Natal or China and you are not even allowed to voice any support for even the civilian is because like alluding to the so-called universal value is against like the, the friend enemy binary that like the state propaganda is trying to promote. I actually do see a lot of like powerful personally. 

[00:18:19] Messages our way also. So when, when like the warfare started, I saw Chinese immigrants and Chinese people living in the entire Europe just started a threat of their acts for a room, their spare room and their capacity of accommodating one or two potential Chinese people that are living or studying in Ukraine that potentially needs to like leave the country. 

[00:18:47] And that is like very powerful. I saw hundreds of comments under that one threat people offering up their basement, people saying, oh, my daughter is off to college. And if you are a Chinese student starting in Ukraine, you can come to my home and friends and contact me. So those like mutual aid. Like really make me see kind of like the very moving power like of social media does also like, make me think of this. 

[00:19:18] Um, study that by, um, Jennifer Penn, she's a political science researcher. Uh, She famously has a academic journal saying like the purpose of Chinese censors were not like they were not targeted at criticism of the government. That is like contrary to popular belief, not their priority. But what they're trying to suppress the most is actually collective action and sympathy. 

[00:19:45] And like the common human emotions is like one of the most powerful thing to unite people and get people on the street. Right. As like. State it. So maybe that's also why I like those comments are getting sensor. And one of the main effects of the censorship and I like the content take down is like to discourage and to de-motivate people who actually are anti-war and sympathetic to Ukraine, the country and its people to stop talking. 

[00:20:21] Ali's like blatantly on social media. Right. And I think like that definitely prompted them to, to express their sentiment and their support for Ukraine in a more subtle and skillful. There's like these two factions of people, right? Like it's very extreme on social media. And we all know that the internet doesn't like reflect real life, right? 

[00:20:43] Like on the internet, you see all this like fake outrage over different things. And like there's so much noise. Around both sides. Right? And like, how can you cut through the clutter? Or how can you like help bridge gaps to people so that they understand on a more human level? What is actually happening on the grounds? 

[00:21:02] And like highway mentioned that on the grounds, like people are caring for people in Ukraine. Like the Chinese diaspora are like out there saying, Hey, you can, like, you can live for free or like, well, we'll accept refugees, et cetera. Like on the grounds, it seems like Chinese people are sympathetic towards. 

[00:21:19] Ukrainian civilians. Right. And then here in like the us, I don't truly know the sentiment of like most people, I feel like it's a bit more homogenous year in America where everybody's just like no pro pro uh, NATO, like fight Russia. Right. So. It's like, how do you bring these, like groups of people together? 

[00:21:39] Or how do you bring people who are like stuck in the middle who are kind of like, well, I'm Chinese, but I live in the states and I don't know if like there's a place that I want to support. I know, I feel like personally, like war is bad, but at the same time, like there must be other geopolitical things that are going on. 

[00:21:56] Like what's a helpful resource or like what can help bridge those two ways of being. Yeah, I think I saw some discussions online, um, especially right after the outbreak of the war from people, Chinese people who are Asian people living in America. And they were saying that, well, this war and we'll like, China's standing in the war further. 

[00:22:19] Like in a way complicated, like Asian American lives in America, where w would it add to existing anti-Asian hates in the states because like many of us have had the experience of having. Self identify, um, and come forward with our political beliefs or, or being asked by random people. Like what we think of like, uh, there's a policy made by the Chinese government and we have to respond in a way that aligns with their, at ology. 

[00:22:51] I, to be able to have a ride. To exist. And I think that that's a legitimate concern. And personally, I feel like that, like you said, online sentiments in both China and America, that, that not necessarily can reflects what's going on on the street or in, in people's like the general population's mind. So, uh, I, I feel like those people who are anti-war or pro pro Russia, or, or pro Ukraine on the internet, on their social media, They might not be as extreme when they're living their daily lives. 

[00:23:28] And then on the other hand, I think it's helpful too, to know like how to separate individual peop person's beliefs from the actions taken by their government, especially in the case of China, when many of the decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of like a handful of, of, of government leaders. 

[00:23:53] I think it will be very unfair to say that, Hey, let's take a look at the Chinese government's response to the war and then make assumption about an average Chinese person. I think that's something that to keep in mind, especially for. Or living in Western countries and who have the privilege to access quality information that not everyone lives in that environment and not everyone is capable of influencing their government's decision, but that doesn't mean that they agree with it. 

[00:24:25] And in fact, I, we see that people are speaking out against it and they're taking a personal risk in doing that. Yeah. That's a really important point that you mentioned will you, cause I think a lot of Americans probably don't understand that. Right? Like I think growing up in a place where freedom of speech is like your first amendment. 

[00:24:43] Right? Right. Like the fact that like you're able to. Say whatever is on your mind and like take to the streets if you're not happy about something, right? Like that's so American that it's like, oh, you're not happy about something. Start a protest. Like it's something that they teach you in grade school. 

[00:25:01] And I think the cultural shift and like, not understanding why people in China can't do the same thing or that they can't stand up towards their government or can't speak out is. Probably mind-boggling for them. And I think that's where there's like an inherent, disconnected in cultures and the way that people like, sort of understand each other. 

[00:25:26] And I think that breakage and culture really hurts both of them. I definitely think people sometimes have a trouble remembering that individual is no individual. Bear the responsibility or like the position of their government on their shoulder. So I think, definitely keep that in mind. And I definitely see a lot of creative solutions by Chinese individuals, even at like the heavily censored. 

[00:25:57] Uh, internet reality, still attempt to, to show their support in a creative and non-conventional subtle way. So I also saw this on Twitter. It's the most popular item on Taobao, the most popular Chinese shopping website. Is like the, the pin that you can put on your back and your, the beach of like Ukraine flag. 

[00:26:19] That is the number one most popular item on the entire website last week. So I find that interesting because you cannot send. This, this like certain you can also, those are the online shops, right? You cannot tell them to stop selling something that you're already there. They're already making. So also another thing I'm seeing is people started to organize and they make like appointments and requests on Airbnb for local Ukrainian Airbnb hosts. 

[00:26:50] So they will just book the room and not. As like a way to support the local business and individuals, I find that creative and like, I think that give us a look into like how these digital platforms, how these internet companies has like hyper connected us has like magnified, uh, the extreme sentiments. 

[00:27:14] But like when you look at Twitter or a wave, boy, what you see is always like the most extreme, the most hateful comments, right? The most zealous people. But like when you actually go on the shopping platforms or the trouble room sharing platform, you can see like the actual mass, the civilians showing up and trying to support. 

[00:27:37] Yeah. And speaking of this creativity, I think I also saw and a story by, um, a platform on, on we chatted, I forgot the name of the blog, but, uh, they, they curated a list of tech companies that were founded in Ukraine and Amala. And was this like, there's a company that I'm sure, like all of us have seen their ads on YouTube is called Grammarly. 

[00:28:02] Um, 

[00:28:06] Yeah, exactly. I didn't, I didn't either, I guess Ukrainians have better grammar than Americans. There were also like tons of comments, um, down below that story saying exactly the same thing. Oh, I didn't know, like this company or that company is from Ukraine. And then that's also a way of, of making this whole abstract idea of like geopolitical conflict in a more personally relatable way. 

[00:28:31] And obviously the fact that, that all there has chosen to. To write a story about companies founded in Ukraine that, that tells you in a way that the, which side, the, all there is taking. So, yeah, and then there are like all kinds of creative way to get past censorship and express your, your belief on the Chinese internet is just a censorship has made it, um, more difficult for a layman to find those voices. 

[00:28:55] So it might give off in the parents that the opinions on Chinese internet is it's all uniform, which in reality is not the case. Yeah, definitely. I think self censorship, right. As you have mentioned, this like definitely plays into what people can see and just because like, the appearance has been like those uniformed. 

[00:29:15] I mean, we do see a lot of hateful or like even not see adjacent comments that's fuel, like in the nationalism. Sentiment, but, um, definitely like if we looked further and deeper into the creative and saw the ways Chinese netizens are expressing what they're thinking is definitely like more diverse and more people than people expect. 

[00:29:41] It are probably like having your own opinions about things and doing what they can to make other people in different corners of the world. You feel better. And I think that's pretty much the discussion today. And we, if our listeners want to read more of your work and try to follow you, where can they find you on the Kasami on Twitter? 

[00:30:04] Well, yeah. How do we find you on Twitter? Yeah. My Twitter handle is dong underscore , which is like the spelling of my name. Call. We'll include that in the show notes. Yeah. This has been great talking with you. Thank you so much where being on the show. Yeah. Thank you for having me enjoy.