The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Banned at home, Twitter becomes a new tool for Chinese diplomats abroad

Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, center, and Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, attend a naming ceremony for the panda cub Bao Bao on Dec. 1, 2013, in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

BEIJING — According to Chinese officials, Twitter is a destabilizing carrier of foreign influence, a platform banned inside China on national security grounds.

Also according to Chinese officials: “We are pleased to join Twitter in which we can engage in more frequent and productive dialogue with Americans.”

That was the optimistic message posted Monday by the Chinese Embassy in Washington as the delegation and its ambassador, Cui Tiankai, opened two new accounts on the social media platform.

Never mind that Twitter is blocked back home — and that government critics caught posting can find themselves engaged in frequent dialogue with law enforcement authorities. The Chinese diplomats are joining a raft of state media outlets that have opened Twitter accounts in recent years as part of a push by Beijing to spread its influence beyond its tightly censored domestic media bubble.

For Cui, a stream of 240-character posts may also be a natural extension of his job. For months, the ambassador has argued China’s position on trade in Fox News interviews and newspaper op-eds. Now, he is wading into the medium favored most by the tweeter in chief himself — @realdonaldtrump. 

Since his inauguration, President Trump has tweeted roughly 150 times about China, sometimes bypassing usual channels to abruptly announce new tariffs or sink ongoing negotiations. Until now, Beijing has lacked a way to respond, at least directly, on the platform.

The Chinese government’s introductory post on Monday was cordial, with the embassy noting the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations. The tweets later became more freighted, with one quoting a Chinese official declaring, “The challenges currently facing the U.S. cannot be blamed on China.”

Asked about the new Twitter accounts Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that the embassy is trying to “enhance the understanding between the two countries and help both sides learn better each other’s thoughts.” 

“From what I understand,” he said, “this would be a popular way to do so in the United States.”

The U.S. Embassy maintains an account on Weibo, the closest microblogging analogue to Twitter in China. But that account is frequently tampered with.

When the embassy last year posted a lengthy criticism of Beijing’s demand that airlines label Taiwan as part of Chinese territory, it drew a torrent of responses, including many anti-government posts. But government censors quickly went to work below the post, scrubbing dissident voices while leaving nationalist and anti-American views untouched, according to a review by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Although many diplomats and leaders use Twitter to directly air their positions — Michael McFaul, for one, was outspoken on Twitter while he served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif remains highly active — following suit was not a completely expected move from China’s conservative envoys.

Two years ago, after Trump took to Twitter to criticize China’s trade practices and its intransigence in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, Chinese state media bemoaned the phenomenon.

“Indulging in ‘Twitter foreign policy’ is inadvisable,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary. It quoted former secretary of state Madeleine Albright as warning, “Twitter should not be a tool for foreign policy.”

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