The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Chinese diplomat had a fight about race in D.C. with Susan Rice on Twitter. Then he deleted the tweets.

In this photo taken Tuesday, July 7, 2009, a Uighur woman protests before a group of paramilitary police when journalists visited the area in the aftermath of riots in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang region. Analysts say the Urumqi riots in 2009 set in motion the harsh security measures now in place across Xinjiang, where about 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims are estimated to be held in heavily-guarded internment camps. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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This story has been updated.

As Beijing faced international criticism for its continued crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region over recent days, a Chinese diplomat based in Pakistan responded by highlighting what he called racial segregation in Washington.

In tweets that began Saturday, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad issued condemnations of the United States’ legacy of racism, religious intolerance, gun violence, Internet surveillance, income inequality, the problem of sexual harassment and more.

Lijian Zhao took specific aim at the U.S. capital, suggesting that white residents of Washington would never go to the Southwest part of the city — an area that includes luxury property developments as well as the city’s soccer stadium — due to racial segregation.

After criticism, Zhao said he meant Southeast Washington and shared a 2015 article by The Washington Post that used census data to show the racial divide in the city. He subsequently deleted this tweet, and others, after this article was originally published.

The remarks drew widespread mockery from those who argued that Zhao was simply trying to deflect criticism of his own country. “Is this a parody account?” wrote Frank Jannuzi, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer and East Asian human rights advocate.

However, Zhao’s comments also coincided with the tweets of President Trump that suggested minority congresswomen should “go back” to foreign countries they came from. Three of the four lawmakers believed to be the subject of Trump’s tweets were born in the United States.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes how President Trump’s recent controversial tweets play right into his 2020 reelection strategy. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Chinese diplomat’s condemnation of the United States appeared to have been sparked by a statement by 22 Western countries at the United Nations, released last week, that urged Beijing to stop holding members of its Muslim population in detention centers.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that the letter “attacked China with unwarranted accusations, flagrantly politicized human rights issues and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.”

However, the United States did not sign the statement. It is also unclear why a diplomat in Islamabad would be publicly commenting on segregation in Washington.

In a tweet Monday, Zhao said he had stayed in Washington a decade ago. He did not respond to a request asking for more information.

On Sunday, Susan E. Rice, formerly President Obama’s national security adviser, responded to Zhao, dubbing him a “racist disgrace” and suggesting that he should be made persona non grata by the U.S. government. The Chinese diplomat returned the insult in kind, arguing that she, too, was a “disgrace” and that the “truth hurts.”

Zhao later deleted this tweet.

Though the social media site is banned in his home country, Zhao has been an active Twitter user for several years and has amassed more than 190,000 followers. His account has caused some controversy in his host country of Pakistan. He had once used the name “Muhammad Lijian Zhao” on his Twitter account, but dropped the “Muhammad” in 2017 shortly after there were reports that China had banned some Islamic names in Xinjiang.

While many of Zhao’s messages have been about economic and cultural ties between China and Pakistan, he has recently made a number of sharp comments about relations between Beijing and Washington.

Despite the ban on Western social media at home, an increasing number of Chinese diplomats have been using services like Twitter abroad. China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, joined Twitter in early July.

Though a Foreign Ministry spokesman suggested that Cui had joined Twitter in a bid for dialogue, it didn’t take long for him to issue a terse warning through his account.

“Those who play with fire will only get themselves burned. Period,” he wrote Friday after Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, appeared in New York City.