Zhao Lijian thrives on controversies. A foreign ministry spokesperson expects China’s interests to be aggressively promoted, but Zhao pioneered an extreme approach by becoming a populist provocateur who owes his career to a will to shock, attack and troll criticism of Beijing on Twitter.
For Beijing, it crystallized a model of diplomacy with a jagged edge and chased an older generation’s shift of more conservative and restrained engagement, analysts said.
the diplomatic fury which Mr Zhao set off last week, when he tweeted a computer-generated image of an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child, was the latest in a series of arson attacks that delight Chinese nationalists.
As a sign of acceptance of Mr. Zhao’s tactics, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think tank reporting to the Chinese State Council, released a series of policy papers in May on the need to “strengthen China’s ability to fight for international public opinion. “. He said China needs to “counterattack” criticism on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all of which are stranded in mainland China.
As the most prominent Chinese official on Twitter, with nearly 860,000 followers, Mr. Zhao, 48, has built a rare personal brand for a Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
A mid-level position of power in the Chinese bureaucracy, spokespersons had generally been limited to the scripted reiteration of Beijing’s position and the occasional explosion of issues such as the South China Sea or Taiwan.
“Historically, there were a lot of criticisms [within China] from the Department of Foreign Affairs for being too willing to compromise or even lack the backbone, ”said Dali Yang of the University of Chicago.
Mr. Zhao’s eagerness to push the borders has at times met with resistance within the Chinese foreign policy establishment.
When he supported a conspiracy theory in March that the US military could have brought the virus to Wuhan during the Military World Games, it was followed by a wave of statements from senior diplomats, including Fu Ying, vice chairman of the Business Committee Foreign National People’s Congress, calling for restraint in diplomacy.
But these differences likely reflect contrasting styles among diplomats rather than substantive disagreement, Yang said.
“Global [the young generation’s] The firm stance and the ability to have such influence on the world discourse means that they clearly enjoy the support of the Chinese leadership, ”he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has ended China’s policy of “biding his time and hiding his strength,” calling on Beijing to be tougher in spreading its message.
In response, the Foreign Office raised its profile, stepping up a flawless approach to tackling the perceived clashes, which has been dubbed “wolf warriorDiplomacy after a series of Chinese jingo action films.
The tactic, however, risks a backlash. Surveys suggest that China’s perceptions are at a lowest ever in Western democracies, but the new strategy is hugely popular in the country, said Yun Jiang, director of the China Policy Center, a research institute in Canberra. “Everyone loves good old-fashioned nationalism,” she added.
From 2015, Mr. Zhao pioneered his aggressive use of Twitter while pushing back against criticism of China’s investment in Pakistan as Minister Counselor at the Embassy in Islamabad. As his following grew, he began to publish outside of his memoir, frequently accusing the United States of hypocrisy and ulterior motives in sanctioning Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
In July 2019, Mr. Zhao engaged in a combat fight with Susan Rice, former national security adviser to Barack Obama, the former US president. He had defended China mass internment campaign in Xinjiang comparing the tensions between the Han majority and the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority with race relations in the United States.
In a now deleted tweet, Mr. Zhao wrote, “If you’re in Washington, DC, you know white people never go to the SW zone because it’s a zone for black and Latin. There is a saying “black and white”. Ms. Rice responded by calling it “a racist shame.”
A month later, he was promoted to spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Zhao is a relative marginal in the Chinese diplomatic establishment, having attended South Central University instead of one of the Foreign Ministry’s usual nurturing universities. Rather, his career has been propelled by his loyal Chinese social media followers, where he is known as an “Internet celebrity diplomat”.
Many of its fans are young, tech-savvy, and blatantly nationalist. Hua Zhong, a student in her early 20s, said she liked Mr. Zhao because of his quick tone and “persistence in fighting relentlessly.” [with] shameless Western politicians ”.
Although Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, their diplomats have opened dozens of new accounts in the past two years. Messages from Chinese officials are often translated and widely disseminated on social media.
Yang said the Chinese Foreign Ministry has an advantage over its interlocutors as it has easy access to international social media platforms, while the accounts of foreign leaders and diplomats are regularly censored in China.
Last Wednesday, WeChat, one of China’s largest social media platforms, removed a message from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Mr Zhao’s tweet to Chinese Australians.
“I don’t think the West fully understood that China could create its own bubble [at home]”Said Mr. Yang,” and at the same time interact with the rest of the world in this new way [on western social media]. “
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing