🔌🇨🇳🇮🇳CIN #11 - A Chinese Diplomat's Twitter Tirade over Coronavirus🤬🗣

A Chinese scholar criticizes China's Foreign Affairs spokesperson in a now censored article

ChinaIndia Networked is a (semi) regular newsletter by me, Dev Lewis, highlighting the networked relationship between the two regions at the intersection of technology, society, and politics. I’m a Fellow at Digital Asia Hub and Yenching Scholar at Peking University.
Follow me on Twitter or write to me at devlewis@protonmail.com.


Welcome to issue #11 of ChinaIndia Networked.

If you are living in quarantine at the moment I hope you and your family are okay, keeping in good health and spirit, with access to everything you need.

I found that after getting over the first few days of malaise life begins to find a new routine quite quickly. You may also find that there is a lot more you can accomplish from home than you originally imagined, and there are activities your life is better off without. You will find your new normal.

I shared a snapshot of my experience living through quarantine in Shanghai on Indian Express’ Podcast 3 Things hosted by Neha Mathews. If you’d like to tune in, my segment kicks in from minute 7:55.

If you’re looking for more China-India content to keep you occupied, you can check back to issue 7’s list of top books and movies from the past decade.

This week’s issue includes a translation of an op-ed by a Chinese academic who criticised China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry’s spokesperson’s discourse on Twitter—the article recieved close to 100,000 views in two days before it was taken down by censors. Also scroll to the end for this week’s music recommendation, one of my favourite rock artists from the mainland.


👨‍👩‍👧‍👦While the lockdown in India is an inconvenience for many, to tens of millions of India’s daily wage workers it is a death knell—without support from society. If you would like to help monetarily consider donating, however big or small, to Gubbachi, a small Bangalore based education community who educate children of migrant laborers. The people who run it are known to me personally and are organising basic supplies for families in need. Click here for more details.


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🤬A Chinese Diplomat's Twitter Fake News Tirades

Recently Chinese diplomat and Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian 赵立坚 stirred up a storm on Twitter with real-world implications . On March 12, in a flight of fancy, he suggested that the US army brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.

The next day he tweeted:

Zhao wasnt done. After seemingly running out of dubious reports, he moved to commenting on random tweets, bringing international fame to the Lizard King— who claimed no throne.

Understandably, it riled up a lot of people in the US and the global China watching community.

You may have heard US President, and Twitter stirrer-in-chief, Donald Trump, refer to the Coronavirus as the ‘Chinese virus’ recently, which raised temperatures in China, but also emboldened racist bigots in the US. Trump later explained this was because “the Chinese have been claiming that the US military put the virus there”.

Caught in another cycle of escalation both the US and China have since walked it back. Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, in an interview referred to Zhao’s conspiracy claims as “crazy”. The next day Zhao tweeted this.

What exactly is going on in Beijing? Is this a sign of discord within the foreign ministry?

Bill Bishop, who calls Zhao Lijian the wolf warrior diplomat, had this to say in a recent issue of Sinocism:

I am skeptical of claims of a meaningful split. One is certainly possible, and no doubt there are people inside the system who understand the damage Zhao is causing, but the evidence is not yet sufficient to support something more significant. Zhao appears popular among much of the Chinese public, and he has clearly answered Xi’s earlier call for more “fighting spirit” from PRC diplomats.

Inside China the Ministry of Propaganda does not appear to be pushing back on the spread of the virus origin and anti-American rumors by Zhao or others in official media and on social media. Would Wang Huning and his propaganda system allow this garbage to remain uncensored if Xi were against it?

Evidence that there is a split and that more reasonable officials are prevailing would include Zhao deleting his twitter account, censorship on domestic PRC platforms of rumors about the virus origin, and especially about a US role, and Zhao being moved to a different job.

On Monday last week (before the de-escalation) a Chinese academic penned op-ed in unambigiously criticising Zhao Leijian, believing his Twitter behaviour “hurts China’s foreign policy and weakens its morals internationally”. In the piece he observes a changing trend in China’s foreign policy discourse and outlined the different views on Chinese social media both for and against Zhao Leijian. The piece got close to a 100,000 views on Wechat in two days before being taken down. The full article is translated below.

Before we get to the op-ed a final quick point. The demand for nuanced, well-reasoned Chinese perspectives is bigger now more than ever. That is one of the reasons you, the reader, subscribe to this newsletter. Despite a diminishing space for critical voices there is still nuanced and critical discussion that is not captured globally, over shadowed by fire-brand nationalist voices like Zhao Leijian or the Global Times.

What is a good example of a Chinese diplomat?

In February a clip of Fu Ying, chairperson of the National People's Congress Foreign Affairs Committee and a former ambassador, speaking at the Munich Security Conference went viral.

Fu Ying asked Nancy Pelosi why she believes Huawei is a threat to democracy. If you watch the clip you’ll find that Fu Ying’s comments were articulate and her question well framed. Nevermind that there are straight forward rebukes to her question yet puzzingly the Speaker of the House didnt seem to know them. In an op-ed following the conference Fu Ying penned her reflections:

Indeed, international relations are similar to inter-personal relations, we need some level of trust as the basis for building relations of cooperation and coordination. Trust-building is an important subject China must face while it gets increasingly closer to the center of the world stage.

I had the opportunity to attend a talk and meet Fu Ying once and have been a fan since. I acknowledge that the likes of Zhao Lijian are a feature not a bug of the present leadership. All I can say is I hope for a climate where diplomats like Fu Ying and others of her elk speak more prominently—global politics would be a more stable place and China’s image enhanced.

Chinese diplomatic discourse shouldn’t be self-defeating 中国外交话语不应自废道义 / Dr. Zhāng Fēng 张锋 / professor and acting head of Huanan Technology University’s Institute of Public Policy.

This piece was jointly translated with ChinaTalk’s Jordan Schneider and originally appeared on SupChina.

China’s diplomatic discourse has always been problematic. Five years ago I asked a question in a short commentary: Why is China’s diplomatic discourse so difficult to understand? This article provoked discussion among those in international relations, bringing forth both positive and negative responses. At that time, I used the adjective “difficult” because Chinese discourse pursues grand narratives and is obsessed with abstract concepts, and tries to capture the essence of diplomacy, exemplified by expressions such as “win-win cooperation.”

But in recent years, China’s diplomatic discourse seems to be moving to the other extreme — instead of difficult, it has become far too easy to understand, too straightforward, and too aggressive.

Recent tweets by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 suggesting that the coronavirus was brought to Wuhan by the U.S. military has been the subject of a hotly contested discussion. This kind of discourse takes the case to a whole new, unprecedented level.

How could the U.S. military have brought the epidemic to Wuhan?

Last October, Wuhan hosted the World Military Games, in which the U.S. military participated. At that time, it was the start of flu season in the U.S. If it can be proved that the novel coronavirus actually evolved from a strand of the American flu, then it cannot be ruled out that infected members of the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan.

But giving this reasoning any depth of thought will reveal a series of major logical flaws.

What is certain is that no scientist or government can convincingly prove that the coronavirus was in the United States before Wuhan. In the absence of any such evidence, are Zhao Lijian’s tweets appropriate?

There appear to be opposing views within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with regard to this question.

On March 13, the day after Zhao’s tweets, another Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gěng Shuǎng 耿爽, took a different tact. He said: “China has always considered this” — that is, the source of the virus — “to be a scientific issue that needs to be informed by scientific and professional opinions.” Cuī Tiānkǎi 崔天凯, China’s ambassador to the United States, also said in an interview that this is a problem that requires scientific research.

But on Chinese social media, there were both those who laid siege on Zhao and those who, on his behalf, laid siege on his critics. Those who criticized and those who defended him were equally fierce. Let me summarize the three kinds of voices that came to Zhao’s defense.

One set of voices believes that Zhao’s tweets were in his personal capacity and part of his right to freedom of speech. This view is hardly convincing. Zhao’s tweets receive attention because he is a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His Twitter profile clearly states that he is a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, implying that he is not an ordinary person, and therefore any remarks should not be interpreted as his personal opinion.

On the internet, there are a chorus of voices claiming the virus originated in the U.S., but no voice has attracted such attention as Zhao Lijian precisely because people do not regard Zhao Lijian to be an ordinary internet user.

If freedom of speech is invoked, I’m afraid this raises too many questions. First, freedom of speech is not unconditional: this is a point repeatedly emphasized by the Chinese side to international society. Zhao’s tweet was in reaction to U.S. Centers for Disease Control director Robert R. Redfield telling the Senate that at the moment, American tests for coronavirus may not be sufficient, and that there may be deaths from COVID-19 erroneously recorded as casualties from the flu. Leaning on this statement alone, there is no way to reach the conclusion that the U.S. had the coronavirus at the start.

Zhao clearly took Redfield’s statement out of context. The context of this dialogue was a lawmaker asking about a death in a nursing home in Washington state, and whether the CDC may be miscategorizing COVID-19 cases as flu. Ignoring this context, one is sure to take the wrong meaning.

Attempts by Chinese diplomats to tell a good China story on Twitter have become a high-profile phenomenon in recent Chinese diplomatic propaganda. While some of the publicity has had a positive impact abroad, it has also raised some embarrassing questions. For example, how does this approach line up with China’s existing internet management policies?

A second kind of voice in Zhao’s defense believes that Zhao is speaking the official line and that every word he utters has some deep meaning, and since he must be thinking before he speaks, one should believe him. This is a lazy and reckless viewpoint, deferring far too much to the spokesperson.

A third voice defends Zhao by arguing that government officials bickering with Americans is understandable. Since Trump’s government often “speaks with fire” (出口毒辣 chūkǒu dúlà), China should “fight fire with fire.” America can scold China, so why not the other way around? Isn’t opposing this just a double standard?

There are still more who think that anyone who opposes Zhao is a race traitor who won’t fight the U.S. but will fight amongst themselves. This viewpoint has quite a few subscribers. This is based on nationalism, in keeping with today’s atmosphere of “struggle,” but it is still a specious argument. To fully explain why requires another article, but I’ll simply raise a core question here: This so-called “proportionate response,” doesn’t it imply that we’re lowering our standards, so that China’s diplomatic morals are more “rotten” than America’s?

With Trump already having spent three years as president, America’s international prestige and influence has taken a nosedive, and American hegemony is in an unstable state. One important reason is that Trump has a habit of lying, driven by his emotional impulses and personal self-interest, and that has hurt America’s credibility like never before in the post-World War II era. Really, Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Fox News hosts speak crudely, using “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” as insults to attack China. These phrases are indeed something the Chinese public should severely criticize. Americans and knowledgeable people (including government employees and Democrats) are already loudly criticizing it. But this criticism doesn’t mean China should lower its standards and, like Americans, begin to peddle conspiracy theories, particularly at the government level.

Why don’t we take the high road and compete against the U.S. at the diplomatic level using honest information? Why not let America degenerate on its own and lose its moral superiority to China?

To flaunt like this, and get into a “spitting war” with America while dressing it up as “an eye for an eye,” is really just playing into America’s tactics, and in the end hurts Chinese foreign relations and weakens China’s morals internationally.


🧠🍜Morsels from the Digital Silk Road Collection

ICS and the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University Singapore, co-published a book titled Digital Silk Road: implications for India’, a collection of reports to which I contributed to. Going forward I will select one report and highlight a section in this newsletter.

This week i’ve selected C. Raja Mohan and Chan Jia Hao’s chapter China’s Digital Expansion and China.


🎛Ears and Minds Networked

One artist from the independent music scene around the country—because if you’re interested in China and not listening to music coming out of here you’re not doing it right.

Cui Jian 崔健

Cui Jian is a rock star and legend who Anyone who has lived in China should be familiar with. His music, a fusion of western rock, punk, and chinese folk styles, captures the feels of 1980s and 1990s China. His music is also deeply political. Nothing to my name一无所有 was an anthem for Tianmen student protestors in 1989; in the 90s he would perform his song piece of red cloth 一条红布 literally wearing a red piece of cloth taped over his eyes. Cui Jian is one of the first few Chinese artists I got hooked to, sadly they dont make them like him anymore.

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Thank you for reading all the way through. Stay inside, wash your hands often, and stay healthy!