Chinese envoys are experimenting with a new type of Trump-style public diplomacy – Twitter spats.
Twitter is banned in China, but overseas Chinese diplomats, not traditionally known for being outspoken, have started using the platform to address Beijing's critics more directly and aggressively.
Earlier this week, Zhao Lijian, deputy head of the Pakistan mission, joined the fray while defending Beijing's treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in far-off western China's Xinjiang territory.
Zhao has targeted the United States, a vocal critic of Xinjiang's Uighur mass detentions, listing a number of social problems in the United States including racial segregation. He wrote: "If you are in Washington, DC, you know that white never goes in the SW area, because it is an area for black and Latin. C & # 39; is a saying & # 39; black in & white out & # 39 ;. "
He continued: "Racism in the United States has existed since the colonial era. Racial stratification continues to occur in terms of employment, housing, education, loan and government".
His tweet prompted former national security adviser Susan Rice to call Zhao a "racist shame" and said he should be called back to China.
Zhao deleted his original tweet, but doubled the previous point, describing the "living conditions of African Americans" as "worrying" and highlighting the "endless" shootings of the country, and the women "living in fear" of the ; sexual assault. "The truth hurts. I'm simply telling the truth," he wrote.
Zhao is a small but increasingly strong group of Chinese diplomats, who is bringing his message directly to the international public through social media.
"It is a new communication strategy adopted by Chinese diplomatic actors," said Alessandra Cappelletti, an expert on cultural diplomacy at the University of Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool. "They are increasingly using this tool in an effective and sophisticated way to reach the widest possible audience," he said.
Since 2014, all overseas Chinese embassies have established the official Facebook pages, according to Cappelletti, who recently published an article that analyzes digital diplomacy and Zhao's Twitter account. Facebook has been banned in China since 2009.
But in contrast to Facebook accounts – used primarily to promote Chinese culture and republish official media that support diplomatic cooperation – individual Twitter accounts take on a more personal tone and are used to counter China's perceptions of how restrictive it is, he said.
"The goal is to make China more familiar to foreigners, more friendly, more accessible, more directly exposed," said Cappelletti. "When you have an individual who speaks. It is easier to think that he is more reliable in terms of not being censored because he is an individual."
The personal accounts of diplomats on Twitter seem to be more conflicting, addressing more controversial topics. Another diplomat, Zhang Lizhong, China's ambassador to the Maldives, recently targeted former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, now a speaker in parliament.
At the beginning of this month, Nasheed said that his country's debt to China has reached "alarming levels" and has criticized the cost of Chinese projects, echoing Beijing's previous allegations of "debt trap diplomacy ".
Zhang, tweeting at Nasheed, wrote: "What I can't accept is continuous, unverified and misleading information to the public, which harms our friendly relations," adding that having a "rational (dialogue) based on correct data" was just a "far away phone".
The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, who joined Twitter last week, also used the platform to criticize Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen's visit to the United States. Beijing supports Taiwan, where a rival Chinese government was established after the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, as still part of the mainland.
Cui wrote: "Taiwan is part of China. No attempt to smash China will ever succeed … Those who play with fire will only burn. Period."
Few other Chinese diplomats have created accounts for individual social media, but observers expect more officials to pay attention to Chinese leader Xi Jinping's call to "tell stories about China". Wei Qian, the ambassador to Panama, who tweets in Spanish, joined in October 2017 while the ambassador to India joined in December of the same year.
A Twitter user since 2010 and one of China's most outspoken diplomats on the platform, Zhao is a pioneer. A recent document in the International Journal of Communication on Chinese Public Diplomacy, through Twitter, Zhao defined "exercised less restraint, discretion and caution than one might expect from Chinese officials who speak in public or post on social media".
Another pioneer, state-run director of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, has had a Twitter account since 2014. Hu, tweeting in English, often confronts critical media reports about China.
While the use of Twitter opens the possibility of an open dialogue, Cappelletti says that in reality there is very little debate.
"The impression is that you can engage in a conversation, but the reality is that there is no conversation. It is (the diplomat) giving a perspective and supporting it in a very strong, determined way," he said.
While some observers see the recent messages criticized by Zhao as a bonfire, Cappelletti sees them as strategic, a way to highlight Beijing's positions on issues such as Taiwan or Xinjiang that are often subject to international scrutiny. Zhao gained about 1,000 other followers after spitting with Rice.
"It is also a victory for them," he said. "This is the game they are starting to play … so it's something they have calculated and are ready to face."
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