(CNN)Wang Jixian didn’t set out to become the Chinese voice of resistance in Ukraine. The 36-year-old resident of Odesa, a key target in Russia’s invasion of the country, simply wanted to show his parents he was fine.
“I’m coming back from buying groceries,” he said in a video posted to Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, on February 24, the first day of the invasion. Wang, a programmer originally from Beijing, described buying meat and fruit in the video, remarking that some food stores were still open.
But his mood darkened as the days passed and the Russian assault escalated. When he logged onto Douyin, he said he would see Chinese videos praising Russian troops or supporting the invasion.
“I was very angry, then I thought I would record videos for them, and I’ll tell them what the real battlefield is,” he told CNN.
His daily videos, posted across various platforms including YouTube and the Chinese messaging app WeChat, quickly gained traction as a rare voice offering Chinese audiences a glimpse into war-torn Ukraine — a stark contrast from Chinese state media, which has promoted Russian disinformation such as unfounded claims Ukrainian soldiers are using “Nazi” tactics.
In one widely-watched video, Wang held up his Chinese passport and said, “These Ukrainian guards are not Nazis, they are IT programmers, common people, barbers — these are the people.”
But in doing so, he had waded into the middle of a messy controversy, with China facing international pressure as it refuses to condemn Russia’s invasion, and an outpouring of pro-Russia sentiment on China’s highly restricted and censored social media — something Wang is hoping to change.
Backlash of critics
Wang had studied art in college, and enjoyed dance, music and painting — so when he moved to Odesa four years ago for work, the city’s “artistic atmosphere” immediately appealed to him. One video on his Douyin account last year showed a man playing piano in a colorful room filled with books and paintings.
His videos look very different now. Several are filmed late at night, with the sound of explosions and air raid sirens in the background. Other clips show snapshots of daily life — quiet streets, Ukrainian flags hung outside buildings and painted onto walls.
“Are those air raid alarms? Those bastards are coming again,” he said in one video. “People are doing their own business, my neighbor is out walking his dog again. This is our Odesa.”
Other times, he’s more impassioned. “Someone told me nowadays, society has the laws of the jungle, where power comes from the barrel of a gun,” he said, referencing a famous quote by Communist leader Mao Zedong. “Where is the sense in that?”
As these videos began garnering attention, sometimes racking up more than 140,000 views, the number of critics rose too, with comments calling him a national traitor.
“You don’t need this Chinese passport anymore, you have already forgotten which country you are from,” one popular comment on Douyin read. “The official position of the country should be the position of all Chinese people.”
China has tried to stake out a neutral position, choosing not to condemn Russia or even call it an invasion while frequently saying “all countries’ legitimate security concerns” should be addressed.
In a call with US President Joe Biden on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said both countries have a responsibility for ensuring peace. But the White House said afterward it was still concerned China could provide Russia assistance.
“I don’t understand how I ‘betrayed’ the country,” Wang told CNN. With limited access to news broadcasts and widespread online misinformation, he said he doesn’t understand China’s or Russia’s position — all he knew was that “every day the city is under fire, many were killed.”
The comments of anonymous online strangers don’t bother him — but they do when it’s from people he cares about, such as a Chinese Embassy staff member he knew from his previous residence in North Macedonia.
He said the staffer reached out to him recently, insinuating Wang was being paid to post his videos, and asking: “Who sent you?” When Wang insisted he wasn’t doing it for money, the staffer replied: “Your current behavior is not in line with national interests. I want to cut off relations with you, let’s block each other.”
That “really hurt my heart,” Wang said.
Determined to stay
Chinese censors have also cracked down on his videos online, he said. While all his videos have stayed up on YouTube, which is blocked in China except for those with VPNs, only about 80% of his videos have been left on WeChat, and fewer than 20% on Douyin.
He doesn’t know what rules he has broken. He got so frustrated that in one video on March 7, he stuck black tape in an X over his mouth, silently gesturing to the camera to convey that he was safe and still in Odesa.
After speaking with CNN, his Chinese social media accounts were banned, leaving him unable to contact his family back home.
He has received “countless” messages from contacts, placing pressure on him to stop posting, he said. But he has no intention of doing so.
“I want to (provide) some voice for the people in Ukraine, for the heroes, for my neighbors. Because in my eyes they are all heroes,” he said. “I see people being calm, I see people brave … I want to remind you to see who is dying, who has been killed.”
There are signs his message may be landing. Under his videos, hate comments are interspersed with well wishes from viewers, urging him to stay safe and evacuate. A handful of comments express support for Ukraine.
But for now, Wang has no intention of leaving — not until “Odesa is too destroyed for humans to stay,” he said. Apart from his affection for the city, it was a matter of principle, he added: “I can’t stand the act of bullying people in front of my face.”
When he isn’t filming videos, Wang provides volunteer support in repairing people’s cell phones and assisting the displaced.
“(If) I turned back and left, it would be enough to make me regret for the rest of my life,” he said. “I have no interest or desire to leave Ukraine until the war is ended and Ukraine has won.”
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