The Covid-19 pandemic – and the attempts to apportion blame for causes and poor responses – has accelerated a trend both in Latin America and beyond: the increasingly assertive presence of Chinese diplomats in traditional and social media.
So far in Latin America, Brazil has been the most salient example. In April, following tweets by Eduardo Bolsonaro – the president’s son and foreign policy advisor – that claimed the spread of the virus was “China’s fault”, Chinese diplomats accused him of “throwing gasoline on the bonfire of xenophobia” and of being “brainwashed by the United States".
Quarantine has been an opportunity for several diplomats to venture into the opinion pages of Latin American dailies. The ambassadors to Mexico and Peru published articles entitled “Together to Beat The Pandemic” and “A Reflection on The Future of Humanity”. The offering of Xu Bu, ambassador to Chile, was a little more blunt: “Pompeo, The Liar.”
The style, as well as the substance of China’s robust defence, has caught the eye of national media. Referring to the performance of a Chinese diplomat on a Brazilian prime-time TV interview, Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at São Paulo’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, tweeted: “No longer faceless bureaucrats, the new generation of diplomats is younger, accessible & speak impeccable Portuguese.”
Wei Qiang, China’s ambassador to Panama told Diálogo Chino that the increased visibility of Chinese diplomats in Latin America media was a result of his country’s deepening role in the region and the growth of social media. “Having worked in Latin America for 30 years, my experience was that we always wanted to appear in the media and engage with the public, but there wasn’t much attention,” he says. “Now, China is responding to the demand that it plays more of a role in world events and it’s true that our diplomats are more visible, but this is a result of a change in circumstance rather than strategy.”
With 13k tweets and 15.4k followers, Wei is Beijing’s most active social media user in Latin America. While Chinese embassies have maintained official Twitter accounts for several years, the growth in personal accounts is a relatively recent phenomenon. A BBC story identified 33 personal accounts run by diplomats worldwide, of which 19 were created in 2019.
Four of those accounts are in Latin America. One belongs to Yang Wanming, the ambassador in Brasilia, while the other three belong to diplomats in El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic, the three countries that established formal relations with Beijing after cutting ties with Taiwan in 2017 and 2018.
Last November, Lijan Zhao – the deputy director of foreign affairs – highlighted Wei’s Spanish tweets, following up with “It is an inevitable trend that Chinese Ambassadors are on Twitter. They will tell you a real China and make the voice of China heard.”
“Twitter can be complex and toxic, but it’s a great educational tool,” says Wei. “It has allowed me to rapidly learn about Panamanian culture, to get a feel for the heartbeat of national life here and to present a more objective picture of modern China against the often dated image of the country held in region.”
Wei was appointed in October 2017 just three months before John Feeley’s resignation as US ambassador over his differences with the Trump administration. Feeley – a prolific tweeter and local celebrity – has yet to be replaced by the State Department. In his absence Wei became the most followed ambassador in the country and, judging from photos and public appearances, a popular member of the international community.
Chinese soft power [...] is not working. Coronavirus has caused the collapse of many years of hard work and the challenge now is to rebuild credibility.
As with other Chinese diplomats online, Wei has used his platform to post evidence from international experts that challenge theories that Covid-19 was manmade or that place blame on its spread on China.
“Currently, the US is not playing a positive role. It is criticising China without reason” he says. “Our ideal would be for a tripartite relationship [US-China-Panama] for the benefit of all, but if that’s not possible then at least that [US and Chinese] paths run parallel rather than clashing in a negative way.”
Wei says that he is given discretion over his posts by his employers. Some China observers note major changes in diplomatic trends that suggest a change in central policy, however- the direct criticism of Brazil’s government being a prime example.
“In recent years we’ve seen a shift in the way China projects its image, with a far greater emphasis on cultural diplomacy,” Alessandra Cappelletti, a professor of international relations at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University told Diálogo Chino. “However, intruding in another country’s affairs is very new. Respect for the local government, whatever its nature, was a pillar of Chinese foreign policy.”
Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic presents the Chinese government with an unprecedented image problem.
“Chinese soft power, regardless of the huge investments it has received, is not working,” says Cappelletti. “Their increased online presence means diplomats have exposed themselves to criticism from a well-informed and curious audience. The coronavirus has caused the collapse of many years of hard work in this regard and the challenge now is to rebuild credibility.”