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A visitor to a Ukraine restaurant holds together the Chinese and Ukraine national flags on Feb. 24, 2022, in Beijing.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

The woman’s voice cracked as she begged for help.

“I’m really scared,” she told the Chinese embassy in Kyiv over the phone. “I called you guys over and over and over again, and really, I am freaking out.”

A recording of the call – which cannot be independently verified by The Globe and Mail – was posted to social platform Weibo late Monday. It was viewed more than 1.5 million times in the 20 hours or so the video was online, a sign of the growing frustration many Chinese people in Ukraine feel about the conflicting and limited advice they have received from Beijing’s representatives in the war-torn country.

“Before the war began, some people said repeatedly that evacuations were arranged, and some were hesitant to leave at first, but the embassy did not give any response,” read a post on Weibo accompanying the video. While the woman’s profile did not give a name other than the handle @S_729, it identified her as a 26-year-old student living in Kyiv, and previous posts included photos and videos taken in the Ukrainian capital.

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In the recording, an embassy staffer could be heard telling the woman it was safe to evacuate and she should go to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine near the Polish border.

“I can’t book a car. I can’t get to the train station. How can I get there?” she responded. “You tell me to go to Lviv. I don’t know anyone. How can I go alone?”

In China, the recording was greeted with both sympathy and anger, with some accusing the woman of “handing a knife” to those who sought to criticize Beijing. In a later post, @S_729 wrote that “I know posting this on Weibo is very dangerous, I know it will generate public opinion and may be censored, but this is really the situation, we have no way to voluntarily evacuate.”

“I know the country will not leave us,” she said. “I’m a human being, I also have emotions, I know I should not lose control and vent all my emotions to the embassy, but after four days staying awake, plus all the mental stress, I can’t control my mood. Downstairs on the street every day there are tanks passing by, we’ve seen two residential buildings bombed.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, great attention has been paid to how much Beijing knew of Moscow’s plans in advance, and whether anything could have been done to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Feb. 4 in what was widely seen as a show of solidarity against the West.

According to The New York Times, U.S. officials repeatedly shared intelligence with China that showed an invasion was in the works, only for it to be ignored or even on one occasion shared with Moscow. Before Mr. Putin announced a “special military operation” on Feb. 24, sending troops and tanks across the border, officials in Beijing were openly dismissive of Western warnings, accusing Washington and NATO of seeking to drive up tensions for their own purposes.

While some have been skeptical of how much Beijing was truly surprised by the invasion, in Ukraine at least, Chinese officials do not appear to have taken the threat of war seriously until it was too late.

When Russian troops began massing on the Ukrainian border in late January, Canada and a number of other Western nations ordered the family members of diplomatic staff in the country to leave, and urged citizens to do the same “while commercial means are still available.” On Feb.12, Ottawa announced it was shuttering Canada’s embassy in Kyiv and moving essential staff to Lviv. Other countries did the same.

By contrast, China’s embassy was a sea of calm. There was no drawdown in the number of staff, nor were the some 6,000 Chinese nationals in Ukraine urged to leave or even to make plans to do so. On Feb. 18, as Russian separatist forces began shelling Ukrainian positions in a prelude to Moscow’s invasion, the Chinese embassy published a notice on WeChat reminding citizens they could get a booster COVID-19 vaccination in Kharkiv from Feb. 21 to 25. By Feb. 24, Kharkiv was surrounded by Russian troops.

After Mr. Putin recognized the independence of two pro-Russian separatist regions within Ukraine, the Chinese embassy noted the “situation in eastern Ukraine has undergone major changes” but did not recommend people try to leave the country. It was not until Feb. 25, with Russian missiles striking cities throughout Ukraine, that the embassy announced it was chartering a flight to help Chinese nationals evacuate.

The embassy also issued advice that may have put citizens at risk. As Russian troops crossed the border, it suggested Chinese nationals travelling around Ukraine display their country’s flag, in the apparent assumption this would protect them from invading forces. Days later, however, amid reports of a backlash against Chinese in Ukraine because of Beijing’s support for Moscow, the embassy reversed tack, saying, “Do not reveal your identity or display any identifying signs.”

Amid growing criticism of the embassy’s response online, China’s ambassador to Ukraine, Fan Xianrong, even uploaded a video showing he was still in Kyiv to disprove rumours he and his staff had fled.

“I ask everyone to have confidence that the Chinese embassy will never leave Chinese citizens behind,” Mr. Fan said.

Last Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the embassy in Ukraine had “issued relevant safety warnings in a timely manner.”

China is by no means the only country that has struggled to get citizens out in time amid the chaos of the Russian invasion. A Brazilian soccer team, thousands of students from across Asia and Europe, and numerous expats have found themselves struggling to get out.

On Tuesday, India Foreign Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said that a student from the country had been killed by the Russian shelling of Kharkiv. New Delhi has summoned the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors “to reiterate our demand for urgent safe passage for Indian nationals who are still in Kharkiv and cities in other conflict zones,” he said on Twitter.

China’s evacuation finally got under way this week, a month after most Western countries urged their citizens to leave, though a chartered flight had to be scrapped after Ukraine’s airspace was closed to civilian planes. Videos published by Chinese state media showed two coaches departing Kyiv University on Monday, headed for neighbouring Moldova. “The embassy is doing its best to safeguard Chinese nationals, offering first-hand information, 24/7 contact, and timely help and assurances to local Chinese in need,” an unnamed diplomat told the state-run Global Times.

On Tuesday, the embassy published a list of 14 trains headed west, urging citizens to take them as soon as possible. “When riding, please be courteous to the elderly, women and children, do not make loud noises, and show the good quality of Chinese people,” it said in a statement.

@S_729 made it onto one of these trains, she said on social media, urging others to rush to do so, too.

In the recording she published, the woman could be heard telling an embassy staffer, “You didn’t do anything.”

“You just keep telling us to evacuate ourselves, again and again,” she said. “Where are those people who say on Weibo every day that the country is always with us?”

With a report from Alexandra Li in Beijing.

  • Ilona Koval, from Odessa, weeps as she traveled together with some of the girls she trained as figure skaters, at a temporary refugee camp on the Ukrainian border in Palanca, Moldova.LAETITIA VANCON/The New York Times News Service

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