To much of the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a ruthless villain with blood on his hands as his brutal invasion of Ukraine presses on. But for thousands of users on China’s TikTok app, he’s “daddy Putin”—a handsome, valiant leader who simply wants world peace.
For months, users on Douyin—the Chinese original version of TikTok, an immensely popular video-sharing app—have referred to Putin as “handsome daddy, “older brother,” and even “Prince Charming or male god,” with one user writing they wanted to “worship” him more day by day. Last week, a user from Anhui, China, wrote that Russian citizens must come together to support Putin. “He has invested a lifetime of his energy. Putin really is incredibly hardworking,” she said. A 56-year-old based in Jiangsu chimed in: “There’s no other choice. The entire world is full of people who have a conscience—they will all support you,” she said. Then came another from Jiangxi province: “Daddy Putin is the best.”
These videos, which paint a positive, misconstrued portrait of Putin, often rack up hundreds of thousands of likes and thousands of comments. Users feel he’s a sensitive leader who cares deeply for the Russian people.
“Social media often represents the distorted reality of many users,” Iuliia Mendel, a former spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told Foreign Policy. “All in all, we are talking about attempts to create a positive image of Putin using social networks.”
Fans of Putin have taken to the platform to confess their “fervent love” for the Kremlin’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. Many users include heart or prayer emojis alongside “乌拉,” a transliteration of ura, the Russian word for “huzzah.” This Chinese word coincidentally shares the same first character as the Chinese word for Ukraine, “乌克兰.”
To find pro-Putin videos on Chinese TikTok, all users have to do is type his name, and a slew of suggestions such as “Putin’s handsome moments” populate. Other popular searches include “Putin’s kindheartedness isn’t weak in the slightest.”
“There are two groups of people in the Chinese market—there’s a group of people who are genuinely admiring Putin by posting a ridiculous video, but, on the other hand, there are some accounts that are naturally controlled by the so-called internet arm of the Chinese government,” said Finn Lau, a Hong Kong and China affairs analyst who founded the advocacy group Hong Kong Liberty. “That’s why there are so many videos going viral.”
In other instances, users created singalong videos accompanied by close-up photos of Putin. One video, for example, is set to a Yun Fei Fei love song whose title roughly translates to “This Life Has Fate/Destiny.” Another features a montage of shirtless Putin riding a bear, holding flowers, and then playing the piano. The video opens with the question, “When you look for a boyfriend, is this your criteria?”
“If Putin is absolved of responsibility in the eyes of Chinese netizens, he can become an object of fascination,” Jacob Feldgoise, a fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, said. “I think these are mostly tech users who have been manipulated into believing that NATO and the U.S.—not Putin—are to blame for the conflict.”
So, how did Chinese internet users go from seeing Putin as a strong leader to worshipping him as if he were a celebrity or K-pop star? A major reason is that fan culture in China often turns ordinary admirers into superfans. Young users especially are known for buying into intense fan culture that promotes swooning over internet idols and sending virtual gifts and payments. In 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China actually began cracking down on what it calls “toxic idol worship,” which it said disrupts the healthy online ecosystem and negatively affects the mental and physical health of young people.
China has also long had a history of admiration for Russian dictators, going back to the days when Stalin was the chief funder and foreign support of the Chinese Communist Party, which was able to make its final push to power after the Soviets handed heavily industrialized Manchuria over to them after the war. When the Soviet Union dropped the cult of Stalin, however, Mao Zedong condemned it as revisionism. Statues of Stalin stay up in parks named for the Soviet dictator in a few Chinese cities such as Harbin to this day, and his image decorates Chinese schoolrooms. There was tentative reconciliation in the 1980s, when Chinese teams went to the Soviet Union to observe glasnost. Then the Soviet Union collapsed—which Beijing concluded was the fault of Mikhail Gorbachev’s inability to maintain a powerful nation and party. Putin seemed like a return to old times, and he is broadly admired in China.
Though Douyin users have been eager to post their love notes online, government officials said China isn’t officially taking sides.
“Both Russia and Ukraine appreciate China’s impartial and objective position on the Ukraine issue. China will continue to play a constructive role on this issue. We hope to see an early end to the conflict,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a press conference on May 5.
Nevertheless, China has been hesitant to condemn Putin’s vicious attacks on Ukrainian citizens. And despite the government’s insistence on neutrality, pro-Ukraine comments began disappearing from social media as early as March. News outlets in China were also told to avoid publishing anything “unfavorable to Russia” on social accounts. Rabidly anti-Ukrainian or pro-Russian content, on the other hand, goes unchecked—while the state media line remains that the United States and NATO are the real instigators of the conflict.
Douyin and TikTok are owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, which happens to be the highest-value private start-up company in the world. Part of what separates Douyin from TikTok is Douyin’s inclination to heavily censor videos and livestreams. In some cases, users have had their content suppressed or been kicked off the platform for posting political content, speaking Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin), livestreaming with alpacas, and even livestreaming as a foreigner without permission. Foreigners who use Douyin must get special approval from the company to bypass the Chinese passport/ID card requirement when livestreaming. Though TikTok has had multiple instances of stealthily suppressing content or blocking users without probable cause, it’s not nearly to the same level as Douyin.
Compared to on Douyin, many users on the international version of TikTok tell an entirely different story about the Russian invasion—one that centers on Ukraine and how TikTok users can get involved. Young activists on the platform encourage TikTok users to donate to Ukrainian organizations, find ways to help refugees, and support Ukrainian-owned businesses.
Like other social media apps in China, Douyin now displays a user’s IP address in their profile or alongside comments—a feature that may deter users from publicly voicing their support for Ukraine. Chinese vlogger and Douyin user Wang Jixian came under fire last month for his videos exposing the reality of Russia’s brutal invasion. As Wang, based in Odesa, Ukraine, continued to see videos on Douyin glorifying Russian troops, he decided to film daily updates and share them on his social platforms. Labeled as a traitor by commenters online, Wang had all of his Chinese social media accounts, including the messaging platform WeChat, suspended after the vlogger received multiple messages telling him he shouldn’t “provoke the Chinese government.”
“It’s unclear if this will have a large effect considering that self-censorship has long been a feature of the Chinese internet,” Feldgoise, the Carnegie fellow, said. “Someone who strongly supports Ukraine might have self-censored even before IP addresses were shown.”
For Ukrainians on the receiving end of the conflict, the rise in rose-colored disinformation cuts deep.
“Hearing such praise about a person who kills our people and destroys our country [causes] emotional trauma that will lead to misunderstanding and ruined relations,” Mendel, the former Ukrainian presidential spokesperson, said. “It always happens when someone praises an offender.”