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:
Hello Everyone! I'm Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the UK. Pleased to join Twitter and looking forward to engaging with more friends in the UK and other countries.
— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) October 14, 2019
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:
In 2019, up to 1000 diplomats, journalists & scholars were invited to visit Xinjiang & see the situation there through their own eyes. China refuted groundless accusations by Western countries with clear facts, & its just position has won overwhelming support by Muslim countries.
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) December 23, 2019
The life of local people of all ethnic groups in #Xinjiang has returned to normalcy. Facts are facts. No matter how much “fake news” is generated, no matter what absurd numbers are fabricated by those rumormongers. Ultimately, facts will always prevail over lies.
— Cui Tiankai (@AmbCuiTiankai) December 5, 2019
China has achieved ethnic harmony, economic growth and social progress in #Xinjiang thanks to three basic principles. The first is ethnic equality. China has consistently opposed ethnic discrimination, and prohibited any action that undermine unity and incite division.
— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) October 30, 2019
So-called "Uighur children separated from family in Xinjiang" is sheer lie & malicious hype meant to sow discord. Fact is, ethnic minorities in Xinjiang support the arrangements. Learning common language creates opportunities for minority children to have better work and life.
— Sun Weidong (@China_Amb_India) December 30, 2019
On the Wuhan outbreak and China’s handling of the epidemic:
Infectious disease expert Ana Ferreira said China's rapid response to the novel coronavirus is a model for handling of virus outbreaks. "The example to follow is after identifying the epicenter of virus, China succeeded in isolating millions of people to prevent new infections".
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) January 31, 2020
The message is crystal clear: we have full confidence and capability to win the battle against the outbreak of pneumonia caused by the novel #coronavirus. People always come first. https://t.co/eZKaW489di
— Cui Tiankai (@AmbCuiTiankai) February 3, 2020
When the Chinese people are fighting heroically against #coronavirus, they deserve respect, sympathy and support. There should be zero tolerance of any anti-China language&behavior. https://t.co/VLKGuckLH1
— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) February 3, 2020
On the political crisis in Hong Kong:
Editorial: Hong Kong unrest has taught Chinese mainland society a "political lesson." Capitalism is not a panacea. Many problems appearing in developed countries have reflected capitalist system's institutional flaws. The image of capitalist system now is constantly declining.
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) December 13, 2019
The most urgent need for #HongKong is to stop violence and restore order. Yet there are people out there who are trying to challenge the bottom line of “One Country Two Systems”, and their real intention is to overthrow the country and ruin the two systems.
— Cui Tiankai (@AmbCuiTiankai) December 5, 2019
Three bottom lines: China will not tolerate, one, undermining of national sovereignty and security, two, challenging the authority of Central Government or Basic Law, and three, using #HongKong for infiltration or sabotage against the mainland.
— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) November 18, 2019
National flag is the symbol of a country's national dignity. Desecrating it is unacceptable across the world. It is an offense under the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance of Hong Kong SAR, China. The Hong Kong police's actions against law-breakers are totally justified.
— Sun Weidong (@China_Amb_India) December 23, 2019
On the U.S.-China trade war:
China has long expressed its attitude towards a trade war: it is unwilling to fight, but it is not afraid to fight & has to fight if necessary. In the face of the soft & hard hands of US, China has long given the answer: To talk, the door is open; to fight, stay until the end.
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) May 14, 2019
It is extremely dangerous and irresponsible to base #America’s policy on alarmism and label #China as a strategic rival and even adversary. Decoupling our two countries in trade and industrial development goes against globalization and the tide of history… pic.twitter.com/MlIw7b6aHT
— Cui Tiankai (@AmbCuiTiankai) September 18, 2019
#ChinaUS trade war created a lot of uncertainties and unpredictabilities. The world is watching and the negotiators have a big duty on their shoulders. China wants to reach a deal sooner than later because this is in the interest not only of China and the US but also the world. https://t.co/nsg8IHrIOI
— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) November 16, 2019
#US unilateral initiation of trade war has no international legal basis at all. The tariffs are typical unilateralism, protectionism & trade bullying. They are clear violation of basic WTO principle of most-favored-nation treatment, basic spirit & principles of international law.
— Sun Weidong (@China_Amb_India) July 13, 2018
On the Huawei scandal:
The propoganda against China stems from the change in US strategy toward China. Belt & Road Initiative was portrayed as a geopolitical tool. Huawei became a target of Western intelligence agencies. China's economic rise was like an evil movement. They are telling a big lie.
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 30, 2019
China has never and will never ask companies or individuals to collect data, information or intelligence in others countries by illegal means. Fabricating “Huawei risk” in the name of national security is tantamount to giving a dog a bad name to hang him.
— Liu Xiaoming (@AmbLiuXiaoMing) January 5, 2020
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.