Hours before President Donald Trump posted racist tweets about four women Democratic members of Congress, a senior Chinese diplomat managed to match his offensiveness, setting off a small uproar when he repeated a stereotype of a Washington, DC, neighborhood.
The Chinese government has tended to mostly ignore Twitter, which is blocked back home, in favor of cultivating its presence on homegrown networks like Weibo and WeChat. But diplomats from China — including the Chinese ambassador to the US — are increasing their presence on Twitter, attempting to make headway on a platform that they’ve seen Trump both master in terms of propaganda and grant his generally limited attention.
Lijian Zhao, the deputy chief of mission at China’s embassy in Pakistan, sparked the weekend firestorm when he wrote out a series of tweets Saturday highlighting recent events at the United Nations in Geneva. Diplomats there from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Egypt, and 34 other countries issued a letter praising China’s treatment of Muslim minorities, despite years of reports of mass spying and human rights abuses in the country’s Xinjiang region.
“We note with appreciation that human rights are respected and protected in China in the process of counterterrorism and de-radicalization,” the letter addressed to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council read, praising Beijing’s “contribution to the international human rights cause.”
That letter came in response to an earlier letter from the United Kingdom, Canada, and 20 others condemning Beijing’s repression of the Uighur ethnic group. As many as 1 million Uighurs, the majority of whom are Muslim, are reportedly held within the Chinese camps. China insists their internment is necessary as a counterterrorism measure and to educate the population to speak Mandarin and otherwise assimilate into Chinese culture.
While pointing out that no Muslim countries had signed on to the UK’s letter, Zhao called the response a “big slap on the face” of the US and the West. He then wrote in a tweet that was later deleted: “If you’re in Washington, D.C., 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.”
The southeast area in Washington, DC, is majority nonwhite and has long been stereotyped as a haven for crime and poverty for decades within the city. (Zhao later corrected his geographical error in another deleted tweet.) It’s an area that a resident told his compatriots coming into town for a tea party march back in 2010 to avoid entirely, in a blog post that was dragged at the time.
By Sunday night, people had begun to notice Zhao’s tweet and call out his rather undiplomatic phrasing.
And despite the persistent stereotypes that locals have worked for years to dispel, there has been progress in rebuilding the black community in southeast DC in the face of increased gentrification.
Many though incorrectly assumed that he was posted at the Chinese Embassy in the United States — including former national security adviser and UN ambassador Susan Rice, who called on Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai to “send him home.”
When Zhao logged into Twitter again Monday morning in Pakistan, he was prepared to double down by pointing out that yes, the United States has a problem with racism, tweeting out a Washington Post article that describes DC’s marked split along racial lines.
He then went out to call out the US for its gun violence, mistreatment of women, money in politics, and dropped more stats about the plight of black citizens. Not content to continue to rail against the many things wrong in the US himself, the diplomat retweeted several of the responses to critics in his feed from a Twitter account that appears to be related to the /r/Sino subreddit.
And he then turned his fire back on Rice, calling her “such a disgrace” and “shockingly ignorant, too.” That tweet too was deleted a few hours later. His tweets criticizing the human rights situation in the United States remained up.
None of what Zhao says about the issues the US faces is false — but he also did not address the Uighur situation at all, in a classic bit of whataboutism. Zhao did not immediately respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment on why he deleted his tweets and any comparisons he might be making between the treatment of black US citizens and Uighurs in China.
Neither DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office nor the Chinese Embassy in the US immediately returned a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Zhao has previously made a name for himself in both Pakistan and neighboring India for his sharp tone on Twitter. He’s also been connected to a group in Pakistan that has been collecting data about their fellow Uighurs. The group told BuzzFeed News earlier this year that it had received funding from the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad over the years, which Zhao denied while also claiming to have never heard of the group. He was pictured in June alongside the group’s members. Meanwhile, earlier this month Zhao’s boss — China’s ambassador to Pakistan — posted an essay titled “Xinjiang: a sweet and peaceful homeland for people of all ethnics group” on the embassy’s homepage.
The Twitter feud meanwhile comes just days after Ambassador Cui and the Chinese Embassy in the US officially joined the platform. In one of his first tweets, Cui issued a rather stark warning against attempting to support Taiwanese independence, echoing in a way Trump’s early warnings to North Korea about its nuclear program.
This weekend’s back and forth, however, which was still ongoing as Monday morning arrived in the US, definitely has the potential to be the start of something new. Between the two incidents, longtime China watcher Bill Bishop wondered whether it was the sign of China launching a more muscular presence on social media.
If that’s the case, keep your eyes peeled for more confrontations and pushback against criticism of China from a more assertive Chinese diplomatic corps.
Cui Tiankai’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.