Amid Private Tributes from Citizens, Chinese Media Mostly Silent on Navalny’s Death

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s sudden death last Friday in an Arctic prison was scarcely mentioned by Chinese state or commercial media, and what coverage there is has simply echoed Russian government talking points. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Saturday that Navalny’s death is “Russia’s internal affair,” and declined further comment.

As Navalny’s supporters in Russia risked arrest to leave messages and bouquets of flowers at locations including Moscow’s Solovetsky Stone, a memorial honoring victims of the Soviet gulags, a lone tribute appeared across the street from the Russian consulate in Shanghai. Photos shared on Chinese social media show a small bouquet of red roses laid on the stone railing of a bridge, with a Russian-language message repeating a well-known quote from Navalny: “I’m not afraid, and you shouldn’t be, either.”

The Washington Post’s Francesca Ebel described some of the tributes from mourners in Russia, and the spate of arrests that followed:

Navalny, who was the most prominent challenger of President Vladimir Putin, often urged his supporters not to be afraid. And in the days after his death Friday at age 47 — his team says it was state-sponsored murder — hundreds have heeded Navalny’s call, risking arrest in the repressive climate of wartime Russia and braving bitter winter temperatures, to contribute to the piles of bouquets, which in some cases were quickly swept away by the authorities.

In other cases, it was the mourners who were swept away: At least 366 people have been arrested in 36 cities, including 200 in St. Petersburg, according to a watchdog group, OVD-Info, which tracks arrests. More than 29,000 people also put their names to a petition demanding that Navalny’s body be released to his family. On Saturday, his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, traveled to the town above the Arctic Circle where he died but could not reclaim his remains. [Source]

On Chinese social media, there have been some tributes and essays about Navalny’s life and death, and users have also forwarded video showing Russian mourners leaving bouquets of flowers at Solovetsky Stone. Weibo user @isotopehydrogen noted earlier this weekend that more than 40 people in Russia had been arrested for leaving flowers in condolence (a number that has since sharply increased, as noted above). For Chinese citizens, government arrests of mourners are familiar, and there were many comments about how even leaving flowers has been banned in China at certain times and places. Some Weibo users drew a connection between Navalny’s fate and political persecution in China, and posted comments satirizing dictators and authoritarian regimes in general. A number of netizens left comments saying that Navalny “must have died of a heart attack”, likely in reference to the sudden death of former Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in October 2023, reportedly from a heart attack. (News coverage of Li’s death and legacy was heavily censored at the time to keep the story on a tight leash and ensure that official narratives went unchallenged.) For others, Navalny’s “ordinary heroism” was reminiscent of the equally indomitable, albeit somewhat lower-key, human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died in hospital in 2017 after being mistreated and denied medical care during his long period of imprisonment.

CDT editors have archived some of the Weibo comments about Navalny’s death, a selection of which are translated below:

Journalist Wang Qing: Navalny may be the world’s most well-known imprisoned opposition figure. Today’s incident reminds me of an online comment made after Prigozhin’s plane crashed half a year ago: “He [Putin] does it just because he can.”

@然小然原地重生: Looking at the old bell and the goose [China and Russia], I can no longer tell whose past is whose, or whose future is whose.

@柒捌零陆零: I feel a mix of emotions. It’s sad that he died due to political persecution. He was such a brave man, but here we don’t even have an opposition …

@匹夫有病自己负责: If the official announcement says he died of African swine fever, then he died of African swine fever.

@没头脑与不高兴嗨嗨: Heart attack?

@骑乌龟去浪: Must have been a heart attack, right?

@三句半sir: This happens [here] in the south, too.

@风魔太郎左卫门: Whatever, baby bell and baby goose [China and Russia] can cry on each other’s shoulders over this. // @简时888: We can’t. In our country, there’s no memorial to the victims of political persecution. 

@塔诺亚-兴尧: Many tragedies occur because of the inaction of kind, decent people.

@花不语人悄然: It’s like deja-vu, hm, sounds very familiar.

@正在想一个中二的名字: It’s still better than us.

@酱油小王子885: At least they can leave flowers for him.

@主打一个freedom: They actually let people leave flowers.

@秋雨呢喃1: Making the opposition disappear is a tried-and-true tactic of evil Beijing.

@苦拨鼠: I really thought that Navalny’s future would be like Kim Dae-jung’s. I really believed there was light at the end of the tunnel.

@珠城道人: The threat of “inciting subversion” suppresses all momentum for change.

@RagnaUhtred: Putin uses the most despicable means to suppress dissenters. [Chinese]


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