The Chinese state propaganda newspaper Global Times elevated the Russian government’s claims that its ongoing invasion of Ukraine is necessary to “de-Nazify” the country on Monday by accusing Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion militants of “involvement” in the 2019 Hong Kong anti-communist protests.
The article follows remarks by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stating that the Communist Party is seeking more “active” involvement in the war between Russia and Ukraine and may signal China’s argument for a bigger role in the conflict: that Russia’s enemies in Ukraine are, allegedly, conspiring with China’s enemies at home.
The Azov Battalion, the Global Times claimed, “is known in the West for its extreme neo-Nazi stance, and for its suspected involvement in a number of terrorist attacks and separatist incitement incidents in various countries and regions, including the riots in China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 2019.”
The Chinese government considers the peaceful anti-communist protests in Hong Kong that year terrorist activity. Millions took the streets of the once-autonomous region initially to oppose a proposed bill that would have allowed China to extradite anyone present in Hong Kong into China if accused of violating Chinese law. Chinese Communist “crimes” including vague accusations like “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a catch-all used to imprison anyone publicly criticizing the Communist Party’s government performance.
China violently repressed the 2019 protests, initially sending hordes of armed thugs to beat peaceful protesters and later passing a law through Beijing allowing police to arrest people in Hong Kong for violating China’s “national security.” The law prescribed minimum sentences of ten years in prison for anyone found guilty of “terrorism,” “inciting foreign interference,” “secession,” or “subversion of state power.” While, under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, laws passed in Beijing do not legally apply in Hong Kong, Hong Kong police have ruthlessly enforced the national security law, resulting in the arrest or exile of a large percentage of Hong Kong protest leaders.
The protesters initially asked for an end to the proposed extradition law, then expanded to five demands: an end to the extradition bill, the release of political prisoners, direct election of lawmakers, for Hong Kong officials to stop referring to peaceful protests as “riots,” and a formal investigation into police brutality. No evidence suggests any neo-Nazi ideology behind the Hong Kong protests or any demands in line with that political movement.
The Global Times did not explain or provide evidence for its claim that the Ukrainian Azov Battalion was active in the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. The propaganda outlet appeared to be referencing, however, a visit by four men believed to have been former members of the Azov Battalion to Hong Kong in 2019. The men took photos among protest crowds and posted them to social media, baffling the actual Hong Kong protesters.
“Nobody here knows who they are. Nobody invited them,” a dissident known as Hong Kong Hermit told Vice News at the time. Another protester who chose to remain anonymous noted that the protesters reacted with outrage when realizing that “neo-Nazis” had attended one of their events.
“Once people were informed they are neo-Nazis, my mentions have been full of Hong Kongers outright rejecting them,” the protester said.
The men themselves, led by former Azov fighter Serhii Filimonov, claimed that they had traveled to Hong Kong for “protest tourism” and had nothing to do with the actual anti-communist movement.
“While we may sympathise with the protesters, we understand that our involvement would only hurt their cause because of negative publicity. We would not want that,” Filimonov told the South China Morning Post.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced in late February that his country would recognize two regions of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, as sovereign countries independent of Kyiv in light of an eight-year-old war there between the Ukrainian military and Russian proxies. Putin claimed the invasion, which has consisted largely of airstrikes in dense urban centers such as Kyiv, was necessary to “de-Nazify” the country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “neo-Nazi” last week, ignoring that he became president in 2019 in large part due to support from ethnic Russian voters and that Zelensky is both Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust. Zelensky has effusively repeated these points to counter the Russian claims against him.
The existence of the Azov Battalion, a wing of the Ukrainian military, is largely the base upon which Russia makes its claim to fighting Nazism. Azov fighters use Nazi iconography and express admiration for Adolf Hitler openly.
Azov Battalion fighters are active in the current conflict with Russia, though some evidence exists of ties between them and ideologically aligned Russian groups. During the first days of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s National Guard published a video on social media showing Azov fighters covering bullets in pig fat to use, they claimed, against Chechen fighters reportedly being transferred into Ukraine. Chechens are majority Muslim.
Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, largely tolerated the Azov Battalion. Poroshenko campaigned against Zelensky by branding him vulnerable to Russian influence; the campaign worked to convince some outsiders that Zelensky was “dangerously pro-Russian.”
Zelensky defeated Poroshenko in the 2019 presidential election with upwards of 70 percent of the vote, attracting significant support from ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers. Zelensky himself is a native Russian speaker; Poroshenko mocked his poor Ukrainian on the campaign trail.
Zelensky performed well in the southern and eastern regions of the country with a greater Russian ethnic presence, while Poroshenko only managed to win portions of the far west.
Zelensky’s stance towards the war in Donetsk and Luhansk resulted in protests from anti-Russian forces after he agreed to a deal that would have expanded the regions’ autonomy through elections.
Zelensky’s Jewish identity has also made him a target of Azov-supported protests, which have denounced him as the head of a “Jewish clan” allegedly “occupying” Ukraine. No overt cooperation appears to exist between Zelensky and the Azov Battalion in the current war.