China’s tech giants face a domestic backlash for plans to exit from Russia

US and European firms have scrambled to comply with sweeping western sanctions issued in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But for many Chinese tech companies, it will be tough to satisfy both the west and their home audience.

US sanctions prevent high-tech goods that use its components or software from being exported to Russia, even if they are made in foreign countries (consumer electronics are not supposed to be affected).

At the same time, Beijing has been careful not to criticize its close ally over Ukraine, and has opposed the sweeping western financial sanctions issued against Russia as “illegal.”

China’s online influencers are already watching closely to see if the country’s tech giants appear to be complying with sanctions. But if firms continue selling in Russia, they could be stripped of the ability to source from US suppliers themselves — a fate that befell Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei over national security concerns — and face hefty fines.

Lenovo, Didi face a backlash

Belarusian outlet Nexta tweeted last week that Lenovo, the world’s largest personal computer maker, had halted shipments to Russia. Though the company didn’t confirm the news, many Chinese internet users were quick to label the move “the shame of the nation.” Lenovo hasn’t issued a statement on its plans in Russia, and didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

Ride-hailing giant Didi reportedly had plans to exit Russia and Kazakhstan starting March 4, according to a Feb. 21 report from Russian state news agency TASS. The company soon faced attacks from nationalist influencers including Sima Nan, who has 2.8 million followers on Weibo. “Didi acted so fast that it is ahead of the US sanctions against Russia,” wrote Nan on Saturday. Hours after his post, Didi issued a statement, saying it would not stop operating in Russia.

China is Russia’s top electronics supplier

Russia counts China as its top supplier for machinery, semiconductors and other tech products. China’s exports to Russia totaled about $60 billion in 2021, up sharply from 2020. Chinese companies such as phone maker Xiaomi and telecom equipment maker Huawei are major players.

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