Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Yang, a 22-year-old classical music student in Kyiv, called the Chinese embassy in the city to seek help. He tried several times but the line was engaged.
“I don’t know why the embassy didn’t tell us the war was going to break out when other countries advised their citizens to leave days before,” he said. Yang then followed his university’s emergency protocols and took refuge in a bomb shelter. Days later an escape route began to circulate among his friends. He decided to follow the instruction and flee on his own.
Almost two weeks before Russia acted – described by the Chinese media as “special military operations” – countries including the UK and Canada advised their nationals to leave Ukraine. But in the case of China, which had nearly 6,000 nationals in the country, it was not until the day after the war broke out that the embassy advised its citizens to leave.
“By the time they knew [the war was to break out], it was already too late to evacuate,” said Yun Sun, the director of the China programme at the Stimson Center in Washington. Until the war broke out, many high-profile Chinese pundits and news outlets had insisted western prediction of an invasion was “fake news”.
China said on Monday most of its nationals had left Ukraine. At the annual press conference with Chinese and foreign journalists in Beijing on the same day, the foreign minister, Wang Yi, told millions of its citizens abroad that the country “is always at your back” in answering a question from the Xinhua news agency. The answer was later widely publicised across Chinese media.
Yet, while state media praised the diplomatic mission for its work, its response since the war has also drawn much criticism from some Ukraine-based Chinese students, who spent days trapped in bomb shelters in a war-stricken foreign country. They say the embassy’s slow advice and confusing messaging – including advising them to display a Chinese flag on their vehicles, then a day later telling them “not to display identifying symbols” – contrasted with the image of order and control Beijing had been trying to project over the years.
“For a long time, Chinese state agencies as well as state-sponsored media have adopted an opportunistic approach to use every event as an opportunity to advance propaganda goals,” said Ling Li, an expert in Chinese politics and law at the University of Vienna.
“This is exactly what happened when the embassy rescinded its previous advice after realising how negatively an expressive pro-Russia position is viewed by the Ukrainians and the international community, which was apparently not considered at all when it hastily issued its first advice.”
Calls by the Guardian to the Chinese embassy in Kyiv and consulate-general in Odessa were not answered on Monday.
A fraught and lonely escape
Last Tuesday, an anxious Chinese student in Kyiv posted on social media a recording of her desperate call to an embassy staffer, in which she was told to remain sheltered in place or board a train to Lviv by herself. She was trolled by unsympathetic nationalists online before deleting the post.
Yang’s escape was not smooth either. At 7am on 1 March, he followed the escape route and ventured out to a Kyiv train station. “The station was clogged with people desperately trying to leave,” he said. “Luckily, I finally got on to a train. On the platform, men saw off their children and wives. It was a scene I had only seen in films. I’ll never forget it.”
He said he then spent 10 hours standing in a packed train compartment. En route, he realised he had escaped Kyiv in such a rush that he left his two beloved cellos behind. For the past five years, the instruments had been with him touring around China and Ukraine. His computer was in the bomb shelter too. He carried only a bag with his passport, a few clothes and bank cards. His destination: Lviv in western Ukraine, then Poland.
Yang was lucky. On 1 March, a Chinese national was shot and injured while attempting to flee eastern Ukraine, according to state media. A day earlier, a foreign ministry spokesperson said Beijing was “making all feasible plans to help Chinese citizens in Ukraine leave the country”. On its official website, the Kyiv embassy did not tell its citizens to leave until hours after the war started.
To Luo, 23, another Chinese student who wishes to remain anonymous, the official plan came too late. Having not heard from his embassy for days, Luo jumped on a motorcycle to leave Kyiv with his Iranian classmate as soon as the war broke out on 24 February.
They first stopped at a mutual friend’s house in a small village to recharge and figure out a detailed plan after more than 24 hours on the road. Finally, on 28 February, they got to Lviv and found a car to head to Medyka, in south-eastern Poland, bordering Ukraine.
But halfway to the Polish border, the traffic jam forced them to abandon the car. “So we decided to go to the border on foot,” Luo said. It was 3pm when they began to walk. They finally arrived at the border at 6am the next day.
At the border, they saw two long queues: one for Ukraine nationals – mostly women, children and the elderly; the other for foreigners – mostly Indians and north Africans, Luo said. A day later, on 2 March, Luo and his classmate finally crossed the border, thanks to an announcement by Warsaw two days earlier that allowed Chinese nationals to enter Poland without a Schengen visa.
Yang and Luo are safe in Poland after their ordeal. The first two flights carrying evacuees landed in China on Saturday, according to state media. But Luo said he hoped to remain in Poland because tickets to China were “way too expensive”.
“I don’t understand. China gives hundreds of millions of dollars to developing countries every year but they don’t financially help their citizens who were forced to escape [to] go back home,” Luo said. “I had never thought this would have happened to me.”
Yang, who took a Covid acid test on Sunday as a part of the pre-departure requirement, has sorted out his ticket and is looking forward to heading back home in southern China in the coming days. On Monday morning, he called his 70-year-old cello professor, who decided to stay in Ukraine, to check if he wasall right.
“I said goodbye to him. I promised him that when the war is over, I’ll come back to sit in your class again to finish my education.”