Chinese Diplomats Take Their “Fighting Spirit” to Twitter, with Mixed Results

As a new front in Xi Jinping's war -- an ongoing campaign to "tell China's story to the world" -- diplomats working globally have been urged to take a more aggressive tone in defending their government's interests in public forums. The immediate result has been an upsurge in accounts speaking for government officials and state media, while Twitter and other global social media platforms remain censored inside China. John Ruwitch of Reuters reports:

The government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, prodded officials at a foreign ministry gathering last month to display stronger “fighting spirit” in the face of international challenges, three sources with knowledge of the matter said.

While Wang did not give explicit direction at the event, the instructions come after several senior Chinese diplomats set up Twitter accounts, some of which have been used to attack Beijing’s critics. This week, the foreign ministry also launched a Twitter account.

More than 1,000 current and former officials attended the event in Beijing, singing patriotic songs to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the foreign ministry.

[...] Wang’s comments reflect President Xi Jinping’s revamp of foreign and military policy, in which he has abandoned the approach laid out by reform architect Deng Xiaoping, who said China should hide its strength and bide its time while it developed. [Source]

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has notably launched a Twitter account, which has been used to abrasively attack U.S. criticism of policies in Xinjiang and elsewhere:

As China takes the global lead in number of overseas diplomatic postings, several ambassadors have also been joined social media. Others who have taken to Twitter to lambast critics of the Chinese government include China Daily's Chen Weihua:

As MERICS' Mareike Ohlberg writes, this strategy is part of a broader propaganda campaign to reach outside the barriers of Chinese censorship to influence perceptions of China globally:

Much of the content consists of regular news stories that are similar to those reported by western news outlets, although it differs from these in that there is more “positive news” and “success stories” about China, such as development achievements in minority areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. On Twitter, the #Tibet and #Xinjiang hashtags are filled with images of animals and landscapes by party-state media. Attractive visuals and curious content or human-interest stories are used by most CCP media to draw in users, featuring cuddly pandas, other baby animals, impressive landscapes, and China’s technological achievements.

Mixed into this is content that is overtly political, such as posts promoting the Chinese political system or justifying directly China’s repressive policies in its minority areas. For instance, Chinese party-state media have highlighted supposed praise by foreign diplomats for the CCP’s policies in Xinjiang, where an estimated one million people have been interned in camps and many more are affected by the Party’s repressive policies. Some of the tweets posted by Chinese party-state media have been highly misleading, such as presenting protests in Hong Kong against the government as pro-government protests. In other cases, Xinhua used its Facebook account to dehumanize Hong Kong protesters by depicting them as cockroaches.

Some editors of party-state media are also quite active on platforms such as Twitter, like Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Global Times, who has over 100,000 followers, and the China Daily’s Europe bureau chief Chen Weihua. They frequently weigh in on hot topics like the Hong Kong protests, Huawei, the West’s supposed lack of freedom of speech, and “Western hypocrisy” towards China.

[...] While China experts may find much of this propaganda crude, it is clear that these people are not the target audience. As Liz Carter, a former translator at China Digital Times, said recently: "The point is not to convince everyone, but to convince enough people to win a public opinion war and drown out voices of reason. This is an often-overlooked aspect of CCP strategy, because those who know enough to care about it are the least likely to be affected by it, and the most likely to underestimate its harmful impact." [Source]

One of the recent major targets for such global propaganda campaigns is the Hong Kong protest movement. In August, Twitter announced the discovery of almost 1000 accounts which 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." These efforts included ads which called the Hong Kong protesters cockroaches. The upcoming elections in Taiwan have also been a focus of official mainland propaganda and disinformation campaigns, which internet users in Taiwan are beginning to fight back against.

Meanwhile, mainland internet users -- most of whom are based outside China -- who sympathize with Hong Kong protesters are also taking to social media outside the Great Firewall to counter the official line on the unrest there. A platform launched by Chinese Twitter user @midwaydude offers a channel to anonymously express their support for the Hong Kong protest movement.

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