Ukraine has threatened to ban Chinese tourists after a Chinese opera singer performed a Soviet-era patriotic song in a bombed-out theater in Mariupol, a Ukrainian city that fell to Russian troops after a three-month siege.
In an online video shared by an advisor to the exiled mayor, Petro Andryushchenko, Wang Fang stands on a balcony in the ruins of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre, which was destroyed during fighting earlier this year, along with much of the rest of the city, singing a Chinese-language version of the military anthem “Katyusha.”
“I hope the spirits of the more than 600 Mariupol residents killed by the Russians liked it so much that they will haunt her with horrors for the rest of her life,” Andryushchenko commented on the video.
While China has stopped short of openly supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is showing support for Russia in other ways, including banning those who criticize President Vladimir Putin from social media.
However, the foreign ministry in April also moved to walk back comments calling into question Ukraine’s national sovereignty from one of its “wolf-warrior” diplomats, Liu Shaye, affirming that it does respect the sovereign status of the former Soviet republics.
Wang arrived in Mariupol with a number of Chinese bloggers and influencers, the Kyiv Post newspaper reported, citing a Telegram post from Andryushchenko.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Legal Affairs spokesman Oleg Nikolenko accused Wang of “complete moral degradation.”
“The performance of … the song Katyusha on the ruins of the drama theater in Mariupol, in which the Russian army killed more than 600 innocent people is an example of complete moral degradation,” Nikolenko wrote on his Facebook page on Sept. 8.
He said the arrival of the Chinese bloggers was “illegal.”
“Ukraine respects the territorial integrity of China and expects from the Chinese side explanations of the purpose of Chinese citizens’ stay in Mariupol, as well as the path of their entry to the temporarily occupied Ukrainian city,” Nikolenko said.
He also said that the Ukrainian foreign minister had initiated a ban on Chinese tourists entering the country.
Wang is married to Chinese social media influencer Zhou Xiaoping, who recently became a member of Beijing’s advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
“Go to the soldier on the far frontier – give him Katyusha’s greetings,” the lyrics run in Chinese.
“The young soldier stationed at the frontier … fights bravely to defend the motherland, and Katyusha’s love will always belong to him.”
There were signs on Monday that government censors were moving to erase Wang’s performance from Chinese social media platforms, suggesting that Beijing was less than pleased by the incident.
Searches for “Wang Fang Ukraine” and a related hashtag on the Sina Weibo social media platform showed up in search results, but were empty when the link was clicked on Monday.
“This content cannot be displayed due to violation of relevant laws and policies,” one error message said.
Offensive to China, too
The song isn’t just offensive to those who died in Mariupol; it’s offensive to China, said Chinese current affairs commentator Li Ang.
“This is a song from when the invading Russian army occupied part of the Far East, taking it from China,” Li said. “I imagine this must have the tacit approval of the [Chinese] government.”
“Now that China and Russia are so close, they keep showing their support for Russia in different ways,” he said. “This is coming from the [Chinese] ruling class, from their interests – it doesn’t represent [the rest of] us.”
China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on Weibo in September 2019 that the song dates back to the occupation by Soviet troops of the border city of Hunchun, at the mouth of the Tumen river dividing northeast China from North Korea.
China lost control of the Tumen estuary in that conflict, and “Katyusha” was inspired by the pear trees that were in blossom at the time. It went on to become a battlefield anthem for Soviet troops.
‘Hit a raw nerve’
Some social media comments in China were critical of Wang’s actions, saying she had done it to “please herself,” and brought diplomatic embarrassment to China.
Her husband Zhou sprang to Wang’s defense, praising her as “a rose of the battlefield,” while former Global Times editor and pro-Beijing commentator Hu Xijin said he disapproved.
Current affairs commentator Ma Ju said Zhou and Wang were likely jockeying to demonstrate their loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, but had misread the political atmosphere in China, “but they have hit a raw nerve diplomatically.”
“They were used by certain political forces and propaganda agencies in Russia,” he said.
Ma said that while Wang likely believed she was acting according to the will of Beijing, Hu Xijin’s disapproval was likely closer to the official view of the incident.
“Hu the Flatterer got it right, because he evaluates various issues in the Russian-Ukraine war based on [China’s] national interest as a fundamental starting point,” Ma said. “It’s very clear that neither Zhou nor Wang have those kinds of smarts.”
Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.