Chinese officials have finally discovered Twitter. What could possibly go wrong?
China's diplomats are finally warming to Twitter as they move away from their traditionally low-key style of communication and seek to engage more directly with the rest of the world.
While governments and politicians across the world have long understood the value of using the platform to communicate their views directly, it remains banned in mainland China and its diplomats have traditionally preferred to use more formal channels and state media to convey their message.
When US President Donald Trump, the most high-profile tweeter of all, first began using the platform to criticise China, Beijing even complained - through state news agency Xinhua - that such tweets "have broken decades-old diplomatic protocols".
But now the country's diplomatic corps - from the ambassador to Washington downwards - has started exploring the world of cyberspace beyond the country's Great Firewall as they seek to react to growing criticism of Beijing's policies in the US and other Western countries.
Zhao Lijian was branded a
But even though most Chinese diplomats are careful to stay strictly on-message in their tweets, the nature of the platform is such that they still sometimes find themselves becoming embroiled in less than less-than-diplomatic exchanges with Beijing's critics.
The most notorious example so far involves Zhao Lijian, the deputy chief of mission for the Chinese embassy in Pakistan, who became embroiled in a race row with a former White House official.
Zhao, who recently tweeted that his posting to Islamabad was ending soon, is actually an anomaly among Chinese officials, having opened his Twitter account as far back as 2010.
But his Twitter feed - full of praise for China's "iron-brotherly" relationship with Pakistan and the country's Belt and Road Initiative - had attracted little notice in the wider world.
But he gained a much wider audience earlier this month when his attempt to defend China's policies in Xinjiang, where it is accused of interning more than a million Uygurs and other Muslim minorities in reeducation camps, saw him branded a "racist disgrace" by former US national security adviser Susan Rice.
In a since-deleted tweet, Zhao had criticised America's own record on race relations claiming: "If you're in Washington DC, 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."
In her response Rice suggested that he should have been "PNG'd" (declared persona non grata) because of his comments and called for him to be sent home.
The incident illustrates the pitfalls for China's diplomats of using such a direct medium.
"Using Twitter for diplomacy purposes, so-called Twiplomacy, is a typical practice around the world. Compared with other social media platforms, Twitter is more open and publicly available, often serving as a platform for global political communication," said Guo Lei, an assistant professor of emerging media studies at Boston University.
But Guo warned: "Simply because they tweet doesn't mean they will be heard, or interpreted in the way they intend.
"Though Twitter claims to be an international channel, US media and political leaders are still the most influential on this platform."
Simply because they tweet doesn't mean they will be heardGuo Lei
Zhan Jiang, a former professor of journalism at Beijing's Foreign Studies University, said without proper training about communications - and a deep understanding of the context in which they are tweeting - their engagement could backfire no matter how good their language skills.
"It's a gamble," Zhan said. "While the authorities may want the diplomats to speak out to have a greater say on English social media, it would be very risky, especially according to Chinese diplomatic traditions.
"Nothing in foreign policy is too small, and what if they say something incorrect? Or what if the policymakers in Beijing change their minds?"
But the use of such a popular US site does have its advantages from Beijing's point of view.
Guo pointed out that Chinese diplomats have long complained about the stereotypical way traditional Western media has covered their country, and the use of Twitter allows them to deliver their message directly to the public.
"In today's information environment, international politics is not only about military and economic competition, but also about whose 'story' wins the support of the foreign public," Guo said.
"The Chinese government always wants to tell 'Chinese stories' to the world. So increasing Chinese leaders' presence on Twitter is one important way to do that."
Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the US, recently opened a Twitter account. Photo: AFP
Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, is one of the most high-profile Chinese officials to have joined Twitter recently, attracting around 14,000 followers since June.
His recent tweets have included a resolute defence of China's policies in Hong Kong and Taiwan, a celebration of the 92nd anniversary of the People's Liberation Army as well as more personal touches - such as a comparison of Beijing's summer weather with Washington DC's recent heatwave.
But so far he has yet to use the platform to comment directly on the latest developments in the trade war with the US, following Donald Trump's announcement - via Twitter - that he would impose new tariffs on US$300 billion worth of Chinese goods.
It's a gamble… what if they say something incorrect?Zhan Jiang
But some other recent Twitter converts have been able to engage their critics directly without the exchange degenerating into an unseemly row.
When Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, last month accused China of overburdening his country with costly infrastructure projects - which he said meant the government had to devote 15 per cent of its budget just to repay the debt - the country's ambassador to Male tweeted out a defence of Beijing's policies, complete with a rather Trumpian approach to the use of capitals.
"The cost of the Friendship Bridge is (US)$200 million with 57.5% Chinese government GRANT, 36.1% preferential loan from Chinese bank and 6.4% from the Maldivian Gov. In addition to grant, the Maldivian will only pay $100 million. Plus 5 yr GRACE and 20 yr payment duration," ambassador Zhang Lizhong, who joined the platform in June, wrote.
"Our Cooperation here stands the TEST of TIME! WE fully respects the will of the Maldives gov. and people, fully considers the needs of local development, and attaches no political conditions. We welcome people of Maldives to take the express train of China's development."
Nasheed, now speaker of the country's parliament, replied saying that Chinese debts remain "at potentially alarming levels".
Zhang responded politely, thanking Nasheed for his reply, but insisted he did not want "unverified and misleading info." to damage the two countries' "friendly relations".
Zhang and other Chinese diplomats have also taken advantage of the platform to show the lighter side of Chinese life - the ambassador's recent retweets also include state media articles about driverless cars and baby pandas.
But despite the apparently ad hoc nature of some of these official accounts, Qiao Mu, a former Beijing Foreign Studies University professor and fierce critic of China's media censorship, said diplomats may need "special approval" before tweeting about Beijing's official policies.
Qiao, who moved to the US in 2017 after years of being officially sidelined for his criticisms of the government suggested that topics such as the trade war, the Belt and Road Initiative and even China's traditional friendship with Pakistan, would be among those where diplomats needed permission to tweet.
He also pointed out another obvious flaw in using the platform, which has been banned in mainland China since 2009.
"Many people will ask, why are people in China not able to use Twitter and these diplomats can?"
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