Diplomacy and Twitter Rants

A Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, Lijian Zhao, recently took to Twitter to criticise US race relations, in response to US criticism of China’s mass detentions of the Muslim Uighur population. After receiving a degree of backlash, including being called racist by former US national security adviser Susan Rice, Zhao then added further critiques of American culture, including gun violence, migrant family separation, and sexual assault.

Zhao deleted his original tweet but doubled down on his previous point, going on to describe the “living conditions of African Americans” as “worrisome”, and highlighting the country’s “endless” school shootings, and women “living in fear” of sexual assault. “Truth hurts. I am simply telling the truth,” he wrote.

Lily Kuo, China’s Envoys try out Trump-Style Twitter diplomacy, The Guardian, 17 July 2019

So, this is where we are now…global politics playing out in Twitter rants. As a political communication researcher who’s been looking at politicians’ Twitter accounts for the past several months, I feel like I should have something substantial to say here, but when I saw the phrase “Trump-style Twitter diplomacy,” I was a bit lost for words. It’s bad enough he does it–now others are copying him? Sigh.

The argument “Well, you do it, too!” is a weak one. It only underscores the notion that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur population is indefensible. It’s not the first time they’ve tried to use this argument, either–since 1998, the Chinese government has been publishing an annual report, The Human Rights Record of the United States, as a rebuttal against U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record.

It’s also not the first time America’s history of racial discrimination and segregation has been used by critics on the international stage. During the Cold War, race relations in the U.S. were a common theme of Soviet propaganda. According to this piece from NYU’s Brennan Center, Soviet officials identified African Americans as having “revolutionary potential” as early as 1928. During the years of anti-Jim Crow activism, the Soviet strategy primarily consisted of simply reprinting factual news that was damaging to the U.S. image abroad.

Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrative about American racism were undercut by the fact that Soviet propaganda typically involved the reprinting and distribution of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Soviets showcased American news outlets’ photographs of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963.

Patel and Koreh, 2018, New Method, Same Strategy: Russia Has Long Exploited US Racial Divisions. Brennan Center for Justice,

Although they misappropriated the civil rights movements’ images for their own purposes, they were right to criticise US race relations. It was true–America did (and does) have problems and picking up on hypocrisy is something that adversaries do best, while allies might turn a blind eye. Zhao is right to say that the US still has problems with race relations, with school shootings, with sexual assault–but America failing in these areas doesn’t justify China’s treatment of the Uighur minority, or any of its other human rights abuses.

And this is the problem with Twitter rant diplomacy. The platform is simplistic, with character limits and re-tweet features that don’t lend themselves well to reasoned deliberation and fact-checking. That’s why Trump and his supporters like it, and that’s why it has such enormous potential for populist leaders who don’t perform as well in more controlled, nuanced media environments. If you don’t like someone, you can block them–and Trump does, frequently, as one of my favorite bloggers found out before he was President.

The whole thing is doubly interesting when you consider the audience for Zhao’s tweets. They’re clearly not for Chinese audiences. Since 2009, Twitter has been blocked in China, because Twitter wouldn’t adhere to the Chinese government’s requirements for censorship and surveillance (their own microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, does have censorship–and self-censorship). Zhao’s tweets were also written in English, which suggests that anglophone global audiences were the target, if not exclusively American audiences. It’s not directed at Pakistan, despite the fact he is based in Islamabad. It’s for the Tweeter-in-Chief and the US administration and its observers to hear.

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