Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, China has mostly tried to publicly distance itself from the war’s carnage without criticizing its leader, President Vladimir V. Putin. While that is still broadly true, observers on the Chinese mainland have noticed in recent days that their country’s state-run news media juggernaut — like the government itself — appears to be subtly shifting its tone on the war.
There is slightly less focus on Russia’s military might, observers say, and slightly more on peace talks and the civilian toll of Russian strikes. Russian state propaganda has also fallen in popularity on Weibo, a tightly censored Chinese social media network. On Thursday, the only top-trending Weibo item about the war was a speech by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to the United States Congress.
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Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in an interview on Friday that he had observed in recent days subtle shifts in Chinese official discourse about Ukraine.
“That’s based on a shift in public opinion” on the Chinese mainland, Professor Shi said.
In the early days of the war, coverage on “Xinwenlianbo,” an evening news program of the state-run broadcaster CCTV, mainly emphasized the dominance of the Russian military and its operation in Ukraine. This week, however, there has been more footage of Mr. Zelensky — and more direct mention of Russian attacks.
A similar shift has been evident in coverage by CGTN America, the global arm of China’s state broadcaster.
“The dead bodies of people killed by Russian shelling lay covered across much of Ukraine,” CGTN America said on Twitter on Friday. “With the number of people fleeing the conflict growing to the millions and Russian shelling continuing, many fear the humanitarian disaster is far from over.”
Such posts may not indicate a shift in Chinese foreign policy.
“What China sympathizes with is not Ukraine as a sovereign nation, but with the Ukrainian people,” Professor Shi said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 — and even as Russian forces have turned to shelling towns and cities — Chinese officials have blamed the United States for the war and have echoed Mr. Putin in criticizing NATO. Chinese diplomats and state media organizations have also amplified Kremlin propaganda and a conspiracy theory about Pentagon-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine.
On Friday, as the news media in Europe and North America covered a Russian bombardment this week of a theater in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a Chinese state broadcaster carried a report about what it said was a Ukrainian missile attack in Donetsk, a Russia-backed separatist region of Ukraine.
Hours before China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was scheduled to discuss the war in Ukraine with President Joe Biden on Friday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters that the government had been “deeply grieved by the increasing number of civilian casualties and refugees reported by the media.”
“The top priority for all parties is to stop the fighting, uphold restraint, ensure the safety and basic humanitarian needs of civilians and prevent a larger scale of humanitarian crisis,” Mr. Zhao said at a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Those comments largely conformed to a broader pattern. In the past few weeks, the Chinese government has sought to slightly soften its tone on the war by expressing grief over civilian casualties and calling for the war to end — but without blaming Russia or expressing support for NATO.