Chinese netizens called it a ‘proxy war’: Three weeks ago, two pensioners at a Shanghai park argued over the conflict in Ukraine that left 70-year-old Shen Jianguo backed by Russia , bleeding from the ear and trending on social media.

The Chinese government has leaned toward Russia, backing Moscow’s complaints about NATO expansion and refusing to label its actions an invasion. But while censors in Beijing are working hard to suppress any criticism of that stance, the dispute has sparked fierce controversy among Chinese political pundits and the public alike.

Analysts say the debate shows the tensions caused by a clash between alignment with Russia and long-recognized Chinese diplomatic principles as Beijing struggles to assess how the war will affect its interests.

“The discussions are quite intense. There are a lot of different views on this, the debate is extremely diverse,” said Zhao Tong of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

A man in Beijing reads media coverage of the war in Ukraine © AFP via Getty Images

The fiercest arguments rage about core beliefs. “It’s about good and bad,” said Yun Sun, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. “I am struck by the intensity of the debate, not only among politicians, but also among ordinary people.”

Zhang Guihong, a professor of international relations at Fudan University, said China needs to better balance its values ​​and interests.

“We leaned towards Russia. But there is a bottom line we must insist on,” he said, citing respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, two principles that China says guide its foreign policy.

Read more about the Ukraine debate in China here