Beijing diplomats now tap into the world of tweeting

World | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 17 Jul 2019

Chinese diplomats are increasingly turning to Twitter to defend Beijing's policies to the international community, taking combative stances and courting controversy on a platform banned in their own country.

While officials typically stay away from sharing views on social media, a tweetstorm from a Pakistan-based diplomat is raising eyebrows.

Zhao Lijian, deputy chief of mission for the embassy in Islamabad, was flayed this week after tweeting on racial disparity in Washington, saying "you know the white never go" to a certain area "because it's an area of the black and Latin."

His tweet incited outrage from the former US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who wrote: "You are a racist disgrace. And shockingly ignorant too."

Zhao responded by calling Rice's accusations "disgraceful and disgusting" but later deleted his original tweet.

It is not uncommon for politicians or state leaders to share their views or make important announcements on Twitter - US President Donald Trump is a prime example - but it is unusual to see Twitter diplomacy from Beijing. Although state-run media outlets such as People's Daily and The Global Times operate overseas accounts on Twitter and YouTube, the social media presence of officials is more limited.

That is in part because it "opens the doors to more comments - and potential problems," said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In general, Chinese diplomats "don't go off on their own and deliver statements that have not been cleared."

But President Xi Jinping has "long argued that the West has for too long dominated the narrative about China overseas," she added. "So now not only is China trying to shape the narrative about China but is also trying to shape a broader international narrative."

Beijing bars citizens from accessing foreign social media platforms through its "Great Firewall" of internet censorship. But restrictions often do not apply to officials or state media.

Last week, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, made his debut on Twitter. He wasted no time in echoing Beijing's fury towards Washington's planned arms sale to Taiwan, tweeting: "Those who play with fire will only get themselves burned. Period."

Although Cui's comments stick to Beijing's talking points on Taiwan, his tweets could help in "spreading greater awareness" about Chinese foreign policy, said Ankit Panda, a New York-based geopolitical analyst.

But so far officials who are going on Twitter are not straying far from Beijing's official narratives.

Cui's quote on playing with fire, for instance, came directly from Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had used the phrase last week.

And Zhao's remarks repeat official responses to criticism on Beijing policies in Xinjiang, where about a million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are in internment camps. The United States should "first take a good look at itself in the mirror before criticizing others," wrote Zhao, whose tweetstorm was sparked by a letter co-signed by 22 countries condemning Beijing's Xinjiang policies. He then posted a stream of statistics on various issues in the United States, such as racial prejudice - just like the foreign ministry response to possible US sanctions over the Xinjiang internment camps last November.

But "I don't think this kind of approach will help China persuade Americans its conduct in Xinjiang is okay," said Panda.

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