China's African envoys take Twitter tips from Trump in PR offensive

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 16.12, 14/12/2019
China's African envoys take Twitter tips from Trump in PR offensive

Chinese diplomats in Africa are robustly defending Beijing's policies on Twitter as part of a new and sometimes aggressive public relations campaign which is playing out across the globe as the country's envoys answer President Xi Jinping's call to "tell China stories well".

This year alone, dozens of Chinese ambassadors and embassy officials have joined the microblogging service in countries as diverse as the Maldives, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, the US, Britain, Austria and Iran. And, in October, China's foreign affairs ministry opened a Twitter account which has quickly built a reputation for its "Trumpian" tone.

In a tweet on December 5, the ministry's official account criticised comments about China made at a Nato summit in London with capital letters and abbreviated language reminiscent of US President Donald Trump's Twitter account: "Big guy NOT NECESSARILY threat. Unilateralism & hegemony IS."

In Africa, embassies and their officials in Burundi, Angola, Chad, Guinea, Mauritania, Kenya, Namibia, Mali and Uganda all have their Twitter presence, along with the Chinese ambassador to the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

The most vocal of China's African envoys are Guo Shaochun, ambassador to Zimbabwe, his deputy Zhao Baogang, and their counterpart in South Africa Lin Songtian.

Guo, who joined Twitter in April, has in recent months responded aggressively to negative press reports in Zimbabwe and elsewhere while Zhao, also a heavy user of social media, mostly retweets news and reports about China while at times taking a swipe at Beijing's critics.

The Zimbabwean envoys surprised many last month when they used Twitter to protest an understatement of Beijing's aid figures by the Zimbabwe government - a matter usually discussed behind closed doors. In South Africa, ambassador Lin similarly uses the platform to robustly answer China's critics and promote China-South African relations to the rest of the world.

Analysts say Twitter gives China an opportunity to communicate directly with local citizens in countries where it has a vested economic interest through its Belt and Road Initiative, as well as to control the message of how its projects are "helping" the local population.

"Beijing wants to be the lead narrator of its influences abroad. Having this ability through Twitter is strategically important in countries where China is already facing local criticism and resistance towards Chinese investments and projects (such as in Kenya and Djibouti) because of the debt trap, security and sovereignty concerns," said Chu Wang, a research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Harvard Belfer Centre Future of Diplomacy Project.

"Having a Twitter presence is one of many tools that the Chinese central government is using to promote its global role. The Chinese government wants a voice in the global digital debates," he said.

What was surprising about the recent surge in China's diplomatic presence on Twitter was the tone of the tweets - not least from the official account of the foreign ministry - which often use language uncharacteristic with traditional Chinese diplomacy, Chu said.

Recent English-language tweets by the foreign ministry included insults and typos, which was atypical of the ministry's external communications, he said.

"Allowing Chinese ambassadors to open their accounts decreases the ability of the central ministry to control all external messages and each narrative of Chinese diplomacy," he said.

"In recent years, we have seen limited emotional outbursts from Chinese diplomats, but Twitter may encourage them to expose more of their personal views and emotions."

For instance, when a Kenyan newspaper last month published an article claiming the US government had ditched the planned Mombasa-Nairobi motorway project, and that the Kenyan government was now looking to Chinese contractors, the US ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter called the report "total rubbish".

The Chinese embassy in Nairobi responded on Twitter: "China not interested in such rubbish" and published a photo of the newspaper article with the word "Rubbish" stamped across the image.

Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said words like "rubbish" might be common on Twitter, but should not feature in a diplomatic tweet.

"Although, frankly, the Twittersphere is now renowned for its use of sarcasm and I have certainly noticed Chinese diplomats being quite sarcastic on Twitter," he said.

David Shinn, an American diplomat and adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, said Twitter was just a way to reach a lot of people quickly. "Trump figured this out years ago. Chinese diplomats are now figuring it out," he said.

Shinn said it was especially easy to abuse Twitter accounts with obnoxious and false information, as well as typos.

"Chinese are disadvantaged because they are sending messages in a language other than their own," he said.

While the active Twitter presence of China's diplomatic community is seen as part of Beijing's aspirations for a bigger role in the global political and digital economy, its Trumpian tone may backfire by reinforcing the impression of a more hardline approach by Beijing, analysts said.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Beijing's Twitter war against growing criticism from the US and other Western countries over China's policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Soon after China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs started tweeting under the handle "MFA_China", the Twitter account was responding abrasively to Beijing critics.

On December 4, it tweeted: "Millions of innocent lives lost in Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria because of US military actions. Want to mess up China's #HongKong & #XinJiang? No way!"

The Trumpian tone of China's Twitter diplomacy may be attributable to Zhao Lijian, one of the earliest Chinese diplomats to use Twitter and now the foreign ministry's information department deputy director general.

Zhao, who joined the platform in 2010, attracted global attention in July when he tweeted in defence of Beijing's treatment of the Uygur Muslim minority population in Xinjiang. His tweets provoked a heated response from US officials, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, who called him a "racist disgrace".

Zhao, who served as deputy chief of mission at China's embassy in Pakistan, deleted his original tweet but did not relax his attacks on critics of Chinese policies.

Observers say the diplomats' Twitter presence is part of the Chinese Communist Party's strategy to reshape its global narrative in spreading its influence beyond its tightly censured domestic market.

Alessandra Cappelletti, associate professor at the department of international relations at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, said Chinese diplomats had become more vocal as a reflection of their country's new status in international affairs.

They were also "encouraged by Beijing to respond to criticisms and voice their disappointment and discontent when necessary", she said, adding that the diplomats were more confident in showing they were protecting China's image and national interests abroad.

But Cappelletti said Chinese diplomats could not take the initiative to give their points of view without taking Beijing into consideration.

"Everything which is posted online needs to get the approval by the related departments within the central government," she said.

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