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.

Back Where I Come From

It’s been a very ugly week in U.S. politics, with Trump doubling down on his racist tweets about the four progressive American Congresswomen known as The Squad. It was unbelievable, and yet completely typical of him. This Anderson Cooper clip summed it up nicely, pointing out that Trump’s racism is just who he is:

The argument of “If you’re not happy here, you can leave” goes against fundamental American values. In 1776, unhappy colonists didn’t “go back” to Europe–they fought for independence. In 1861, when the Confederate states tried to leave a country they didn’t like, the Union didn’t let them. Suffragettes, labor reformers and civil rights leaders didn’t “just leave”–throughout American history, progressives have stayed right where they are and made the country better.

For my own part, as a white American with British ancestry living in Britain, I kind of did “go back” where I “came from”…And it’s not as easy as it sounds! It’s been a lengthy and expensive process that will never really be over, even if I live here for the rest of my life. Even after 10+ years, I still get asked where I’m from on a regular basis. People mean it in a nice way, (they’re usually just showing a genuine interest in America because they’ve been there or have family there) but it gets old–and I can’t imagine how painful and annoying it must be for long-term residents who are asked that question in a racist/discriminatory way.

Depressing (but necessary) research

After I did my Master’s dissertation on the London 7/7 bombings, I thought I’d pursue a more cheerful subject with exchange diplomacy. Doing content analysis of the press coverage of the bombings was very depressing–I spent the summer coding 826 articles about the attack, and although I found the literature on the media and terrorism fascinating, it’s not very fun.

So I spent the next few years looking at exchanges and reading uplifting anecdotes about scholars who had a brilliant time overseas on their Fulbright grants. I interviewed enthusiastic participants and program administrators who praised it to the hilt and were happy to talk about it to anybody who would listen. I looked through archive boxes full of thank you letters to Senator Fulbright and read about the range of transformational and positive experiences they’d had. Even the most cynical and critical scholar would be persuaded that there must be something to exchange diplomacy after all of that.

But terrorism still exists. Violence is still a pressing issue, and I’m still drawn to researching things that matter to me–right now, it’s gun violence in America.

A few months ago, I started a new project to look at (what I assumed would be) the shifting rhetoric around guns in America in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. I’m presenting my work-in-progress at a conference on Thursday, and I have to admit that it’s way more depressing than my master’s research was. This morning I was reading up on Sandy Hook for some background and context, and reading the accounts of 6-year old survivors is absolutely heartbreaking. I sat in my office and cried while reading–this is just beyond imagination. And America/Congress/NRA/politicians, etc. are letting it happen over and over, without changing a damn thing.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, I thought something had changed. The March For Our Lives movement, led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who survived the shooting, looked like something new, something we hadn’t seen before–a real stand against gun violence, with media coverage and support from (some) public officials.

But has anything changed? I decided to look at legislators’ Twitter feeds over the month following the shooting–all US Senators and Representatives’ verified accounts from 14 February to 15 March, the day after the national school walkout. I’m still coding tweets, but so far, I’m seeing:

  • Cliche “thoughts and prayers” from Congress members of both parties
  • Republicans saying we should heighten school security, arm the teachers and address mental health
  • Democrats criticising Congressional inaction (despite the fact they’re also members of Congress), arguing against arming teachers, and praising student activists
  • Most of the tweets (from both parties) are NOT about guns at all. They’re about tax reform, immigration, Billy Graham’s death and Dodd-Frank banking regulations.

This project is also why I’m particularly interested in the election today. It’s the big test–will voters re-elect politicians who said nothing, who did nothing in the aftermath of the shooting? Will they punish them by voting for change? I’m curious to see what’s going to happen, and I’m very happy for the Parkland survivors who are now 18 and able to vote for the first time.