Diplomats and trolling operations: How China uses social media to sell its narrative

By Jiayun Feng | February 7, 2020

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Since the early 2000s, the Chinese government has spent billions and billions of dollars on boondoggles like China Global Television Network (CGTN) that are intended to tell what Xi Jinping calls “the China story” — the authorized version of how China and its leadership wish to be perceived by the rest of the world. Beijing has also invested heavily in advertising on major social media platforms. 

The results have been lackluster, to say the least. 

In 2019, China faced a barrage of critical news about its foreign policies and domestic affairs, which may have been the cue for a new push for global influence. Or perhaps the inspiration was Russia’s sweeping political disinformation campaign on U.S. social services, Trump’s aggressive Twitter diplomacy, or possibly the growing restrictions on political advertising on some social networks. Whatever the reason, Chinese diplomats began opening personal Twitter accounts.

According to the BBC, a total of 32 Chinese diplomats, embassies, and consulates launched their Twitter accounts in 2019, offering a wide range of content tailored for global audiences. This Twitter list of tweeting Chinese diplomats has 68. 

Taking Chinese diplomacy digital

The highest-profile Chinese official to establish a Twitter presence in 2019 was Cuī Tiānkǎi 崔天凯, the ambassador to the U.S. Since the account opened in July, Cui has acquired around 24,000 followers. In one of his early tweets, Cui explicitly states that his objective is to engage with more American people.

Cui’s tweets are mostly unadulterated praise for Beijing’s policies. “No attempts to split China will ever succeed. Those who play with fire will only get themselves burned. Period,” Cui wrote on the China-Taiwan divide. Commenting on Beijing’s battle against the spread of the novel coronavirus, Cui loudly declared on January 30 that China had “full confidence” to contain the epidemic. “GREAT PARTY and GREAT PEOPLE for A GREAT CAUSE!”

In October, Liú Xiǎomíng 刘晓明, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, signed up for Twitter with the handle @AmbLiuXiaoMing. He got things started with an innocuous greeting:

The pioneers

China tested the strategy with more junior diplomats before the ambassadors to the U.S. and U.K. made the leap. In October 2017, Wèi Qiáng 魏强, the ambassador to Panama, who tweets in Spanish, started sharing opinions on Twitter through his individual account. Later that year, Sūn Wèidōng 孙卫东, the ambassador to India, joined Twitter.

The leader of this cohort was Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚, a Chinese diplomat in Pakistan who joined Twitter back in 2010. As the arguably most outspoken and confrontational Chinese envoy in the digital space, Zhao has a penchant for attacking his critics while fulfilling his mission — as stated in his profile — to “tell the story of China & spread the voice of China.” Zhao has 233,000 followers.

What are they tweeting about?

The general sentiment is well summed up in the following tweets:

On Xinjiang:

On the Wuhan outbreak and China’s handling of the epidemic:

On the political crisis in Hong Kong:

On the U.S.-China trade war:

On the Huawei scandal:

How effective has their work been?

It is difficult to evaluate the actual impact of their tweets, although looking at the responses the diplomats receive on Twitter shows the campaign’s inability to prompt genuine conversations. 

There are some rare occasions where diplomats have participated in spats with their critics. There was an online feud between Zhao Lijian and former U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice in July 2019. In defense of Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang, Zhao argued that minority groups in America also face persistent discrimination and struggles. 

Zhao wrote in a since-deleted tweet: “If you’re in Washington, D.C., you know the white never go to the SW area, because it’s an area for the black & Latin. There’s a saying ‘black in & white out,’ which means that as long as a black family enters, white people will quit, & price of the apartment will fall sharply.” 

Rice replied, calling Zhao a “racist disgrace.” Zhao went on to chide Susan Rice for being “ignorant” about the human rights situation in the U.S. The back-and-forth exchange ended with Zhao saying, “Truth hurts. I am simply telling the truth.”

China’s information war against the 2019 Hong Kong protests

Aside from tweeting diplomats, China is also starting to use disinformation campaigns on major social media sites. The phenomenon was first noticed in 2019, when millions of people swarmed the streets of Hong Kong to protest against a proposed extradition bill that would allow suspects to be handed over to mainland Chinese authorities for trial. In response to the demonstrations, which intensified rapidly and eventually morphed into a full-fledged pro-democracy movement that attracted global attention, the Chinese government launched a campaign across multiple social platforms to smear the protesters, using bots and pseudonymous accounts. 

In one typical Facebook post linked to the campaign, images of demonstrators are displayed next to ISIS fighters. “Even though the weapons are different, the outcome is the same!” reads the caption to the comparison. Another shows cockroaches crudely photoshopped onto a group of protesters. On Twitter, a plethora of accounts specifically created for the initiative claimed that the protesters were “violent terrorists” who needed to be wiped out by “radical people” in Hong Kong.

On top of that, BuzzFeed News discovered that a cluster of Chinese state-run media outlets, including China Daily and CGTN, purchased thousands of ads to spread factually wrong and dangerously hostile rhetoric about the protests. One prominent example is a tweet posted by China Daily on August 17, in which the state-backed publication included a cartoon named “Public enemy.” In the image, a protester carrying a Molotov cocktail and a U.S. flag is outweighed on a scale by a group of “HK people” showing their disapproval.

These propaganda and disinformation efforts, however, did not last long before the social behemoths decided to take action on what they regarded as “coordinated inauthentic behavior” by the Chinese government. In August, Twitter announced that it had removed nearly 1,000 accounts and suspended thousands of others it believed were established by Chinese-backed trolling operations. Calling China a “bad-faith actor” using its services, Twitter said in a statement that the purged accounts were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”

Following Twitter’s suit, Facebook said it had purged seven Pages, three Groups, and five Facebook accounts tied to Beijing’s disinformation campaign. YouTube, meanwhile, disabled 210 channels in this network for uploading videos “in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.”

Taking a step further, Twitter also announced that it would stop accepting advertising dollars from state-controlled news media entities like China Daily. “Any affected accounts will be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation, just not our advertising products,” the service said in a separate statement.

But while China’s pernicious online activity around the Hong Kong protests were handled in a relatively short time by international social services, its efforts to spread pro-Beijing messages by exploiting free expression on overseas social media services are just getting started.