China

China and Twitter: The year China got louder on social media

Cartoon showing a Twitter logo on top of the Chinese flag

It's fair to say Beijing's diplomatic speech is not known for its spontaneity.

China watchers joke that it would be easy to play bingo at government press briefings. You can guess the phrases that will emerge:

  • a strong protest against "interference in China's domestic affairs"
  • criticism of "unspeakable sinister intentions" and "hegemony"
  • accusing someone of having "hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people"

But in 2019 something new started to happen - as Chinese ministries and senior diplomats started signing on to Twitter in an official capacity and tweeting in a somewhat undiplomatic tone.

The BBC has identified 55 Twitter accounts run by Chinese diplomats, embassies and consulates, 32 of which were established in 2019.

Over the year, we've seen them writing colloquial and punchy tweets, sometimes even including emojis and internet acronyms like LOL, combined with shareable images and short video clips.

Rose Luwei Luqiu, veteran journalist and assistant professor of communications at Hong Kong Baptist University, says this "Twiplomacy" indicates China's diplomatic strategy is becoming "more proactive".

It's part, she says, of China seeking to engage directly with a worldwide audience and influence the global narrative of China.

Twitter is banned in mainland China, and most people do not have access to the site. But it seems clear that overseas envoys are being encouraged to use Twitter in a whole new way.

The outspoken diplomat

Zhao Lijian is well known for not shying away from heated debates with China's critics.

Formerly the country's number two diplomat in Pakistan, Mr Zhao is now deputy director general of the foreign ministry's information department, playing a key role in tailoring its diplomatic rhetoric.

On his Twitter profile, he writes he is trying to "tell the story of China and spread the voice of China".

Tweeting in impeccable English, Mr Zhao often shares positive messages about China, ranging from the country's high speed railroad to Chinese technology company Huawei's new phone camera's optical zoom.

He also goes after what he calls "fake news" and "dirty lies" about China. Many on Twitter brand his posts as propaganda, but some praise him for debunking "the Western propaganda".

Mr Zhao has actually been on Twitter since 2010 - he was one of the first Chinese envoys to join - but he gained a wider audience in July 2019 after a bitter confrontation with Susan Rice, former US national security adviser.

In an attempt to defend China's policy of establishing "re-education" camps in Xinjiang, Mr Zhao alleged racial segregation in the US capital Washington DC, where he claims new black residents drive out white residents in certain areas leading to plummeting house prices.

Ms Rice responded by calling him a "racist disgrace" - Mr Zhao fired back by describing Ms Rice as "shockingly ignorant", "disgraceful and disgusting". He later deleted his tweets.

Mr Zhao has more than 223,000 followers on Twitter. In an interview with BuzzFeed earlier in December, he said it was time to project a new Chinese "confidence, but not aggressiveness".

The ministry pulling no punches

"Giant panda more dangerous than bald eagle? Kung Fu Panda adored by all."

At first glance, it appears like a random ramble, but it's actually a tweet from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the official voice of China on Twitter to the outside world. The tweet was responding to articles cautioning against "paranoia" in international concerns about China.

@MFA_China started tweeting in English at the start of December 2019 and has gained nearly 16,000 followers.

It invites users to "follow us to know more about China's Diplomacy", and mostly shares videos and statements translated into English from the ministry's press briefings.

As many users have pointed out, its tone is at times similar to the most high-profile tweeter of all, US President Donald Trump.

The account has lashed out at the US for oppressing Chinese technology and accused it of smearing China's stance on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

It's also taken jibes at US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, reminding her of native Americans' "tears and blood" and alleging - in all-caps - that the US is a "super liar on Muslim-related issues".

'Fake news' attacks

This Twitter surge has come at a time when China is grappling with international pressure on issues like the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, Uighur camps in Xinjiang and the US-China trade war.

One high-profile Chinese ambassador, Cui Tiankai in Washington, has been discrediting global media reporting of these ongoing stories.

In a thread of five tweets recently, Mr Cui wrote that "rumormongers" fabricated "fake news" which "seriously distorted" the situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

While Mr Cui didn't name any "rumormongers", his tweet came after multiple international media outlets, including the BBC, had reported on leaked Chinese government documents about detention camps in Xinjiang.

China claims that the high-security camps are for voluntary re-education purposes to counter extremism.

Likewise China's ambassador in London, Liu Xiaoming, has been vocal on Twitter about the months-long protests in Hong Kong, a former British colony.

After Hong Kong protesters set a pro-government civilian on fire, Mr Liu criticised UK media coverage and questioned how the UK police would react to a similar situation.

Whataboutism

A favourite tactic of Chinese officials on Twitter is "whataboutism", arguing that other countries have worse problems and charging them with hypocrisy.

"Whataboutism" is a classic tactic used by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and has gained global popularity in the social media age.

China's foreign ministry repeatedly brings up US military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, to defend China's policy in Xinjiang and warns against America's attempts at "messing up" Chinese regions.

After the London Bridge attack, for example, @MFA_China expressed condolences but also seized the chance to argue China is being subjected to "double standards" when it comes to counter terrorism.

Other Chinese diplomats on Twitter follow the same playbook, such as Zha Liyou, consul general of China's consulate in Kolkata, India.

The outspoken diplomat Zhao Lijian has also argued that the US, rather than China, creates global unrest and turmoil.

How is all this received?

Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury specialising in Chinese politics, says Twitter is a critical battleground because it's "a direct link to shape the views of political elites in many societies".

But Chinese diplomats' tweets have received a mixed bag of responses - with most posts receiving negative comments.

Twitter users push back by saying they don't believe in China's "lies" and calling the diplomats out for deflecting attention from China's own deeds.

Image copyright Twitter

Meanwhile, some applaud the diplomats for telling the unspoken "truth".

Image copyright Twitter

There's no proof these positive comments are anything but genuine.

But the Chinese government is known to hire internet commentators to influence domestic public opinion favourably. And there are signs that Beijing may be trying this tactic internationally.

In August, Twitter and Facebook removed hundreds of accounts from their platforms to block what they described as a state-backed Chinese misinformation campaign regarding the Hong Kong protests.

A change of direction

Of course, it's the job of ambassadors to promote and protect their country's interests. But the surge of Chinese diplomatic tweeters may shed light on a fundamental change in China's foreign policy.

According to reports, in November Foreign Minister Wang Yi instructed diplomats to display a "fighting spirit" - that's a marked contrast from previous instructions "to conceal strengths and to bide time".

First introduced by China's former leader Deng Xiaoping in 1990, the "conceal strengths" strategy is considered by many in China to be outdated now that the country has grown so powerful.

China is also keen to spread state media coverage to the Western world -paying for promoted tweets on issues like Hong Kong -which often seems at odds with most of the reporting by global media.

State media has paid millions of yuan to third-party companies in the past two years to promote their news content on Youtube, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, according to public procurement records seen by BBC Chinese.

Twitter recently banned ads from global state-owned media sources.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said it is "reasonable" for Chinese media to tell China's story on Twitter.

But other than trying to shape the global narrative of China, tweeting diplomats may have another goal in mind - to pledge allegiance to the Party leaders at home.

When it comes to China's foreign policy, the Communist Party, rather than the Foreign Ministry, has the final say.

The country's envoys have to completely abide by the Party's guidelines and can't afford to look weak or defiant. To sound belligerent against the West is the "most politically correct" way of diplomacy for the officials, says Chinese veteran journalist Rose Luwei Luqiu.

So while President Xi Jinping may not have an itchy Twitter finger like Donald Trump's, tens of Chinese diplomats are now tweeting out his thoughts, or what they believe to be his thoughts, to the world.

More on this story