Late Monday evening in Beijing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began tweeting under the handle “MFA_China” and the bio: “Follow us to know more about China’s Diplomacy.”
Just a few days later, it has already made an impact. Although most of the tweets simply share video footage of spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s news conferences, the English text on the tweets often takes a combative, even Trumpian tone.
“Big guy NOT NECESSARILY threat. Unilateralism & hegemony IS,” the account wrote on Thursday, criticizing comments at a NATO summit in London about China.
Another tweet Thursday warned sardonically with an emoji that if the West thinks Chinese tech companies could be a threat, it should worry about clothes and shoes, too.
In earlier tweets, the ministry had written “LOL!” when talking about U.S. investment in China, called the United States a “moral loner” and shared an image of a ballet dancer’s battered foot in apparent criticism of the Canadian detention of Meng Wanzhou of Huawei.
A tweet on Wednesday had suggested that the United States should not criticize China’s harsh treatment of the Uighur minority because of “native Indians’ tears & blood.”
“China’s ethnic policy is more successful!” the tweet said.
This is far from China’s first foray into English-language social media — Chinese-state-linked entities such as the Global Times and Xinhua have long used Western companies to spread messages that needled Western governments.
But there appears to have been a shift in how Chinese diplomats approach Twitter recently.
Notably, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese diplomat who pioneered combative English-language messages earlier this year, has been promoted to deputy director general of the ministry’s information department.
In July, as China faced international criticism for its crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region, Zhao tweeted a variety of criticism of the United States — highlighting alleged religious intolerance, gun violence, Internet surveillance, income inequality and more.
Zhao, who was at that moment deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, took specific aim at the U.S. capital, arguing that white residents of Washington would never go to Southwest Washington because of racial segregation.
The tweet prompted an argument with Susan E. Rice, who was national security adviser in the Obama administration. Rice dubbed Zhao a “racist disgrace.” The Chinese diplomat responded with his own insult, saying that it was Rice who is a “disgrace” and that the “truth hurts.”
Zhao later said he meant Southeast Washington, deleted both tweets and shortly afterward returned to Beijing, but he was not demoted — he was promoted. He has continued to tweet frequently upon his return to China, using his 220,000 followers to promote pro-China messages and troll the United States.
In interviews, Zhao has said that China needed to take to Twitter to combat U.S. influence on the platform.
But whereas Trump and other U.S. officials tweet in English to a largely domestic audience, China’s Foreign Ministry appears to be targeting international audiences with a sometimes crude message. Here it may be emulating not the U.S. president, but Russian diplomats who have used embassy Twitter accounts to mock and belittle Western democracies.
However, changing international attitudes via tweet may be an uphill battle for China. A Pew Research Center survey of 34 countries released on Thursday found considerable negative sentiment toward China worldwide, with unfavorable views of the country increasing sharply in the United States and Canada in 2019.