“Put on a face mask and keep quiet!” The phrase uttered on March 19 by the Chinese ambassador in Caracas, Li Baorong, to members of the Venezuelan opposition was unusual. Li was responding to deputies calling Covid-19 “the China coronavirus” and rounded off an official statement published both on the Chinese embassy’s website and on its official Twitter feed.
Li’s behaviour in the last three months has been atypical. Traditionally pragmatic and vague, the old discourse of Chinese diplomats seems to have gone out of the window lately, hinting that China might be backtracking on its hereto ambiguous stance on Venezuela’s severe political, economic and humanitarian crisis. This is despite being its main creditor and second largest trade partner.
Now, the top Chinese official in Caracas is becoming more conciliatory towards Nicolás Maduro’s government, from which China seemed to have distanced itself as longstanding debts went unpaid, oil shipments were grounded, several cases of corruption emerged and Chinese and Venezuelan oil executives were arrested.
Venezuela has been a polarising case internationally and China has long stood out as one of the few countries trying to appear neutral. However, Li’s new, more assertive Twitter voice is part of a trend among Chinese diplomats in Latin America that has emerged in response to China-blaming over the Covid-19 pandemic.
The tweeting diplomat
“It seems that they have some teachers in the United States, because they already know how to attack China without any foundation”, Li said about the Venezuelan opposition in an interview published by the Venezuelan Centre for China Studies’ (CVEC) blog on March 17.
In that interview, Li categorically rejected opposition deputies’ requests to approve Taiwan’s admission to the World Health Organization and their accusations that Beijing had hidden the true extent of the virus in China. He then adopted a more conciliatory tone, recommending that “they should not be used by people with bad intentions and should not defy the One China principle [that considers Taiwan part of China]”.
The ambassador has been most vocal in lauding the six shipments of medical supplies and groups of experts sent by Beijing to Venezuela to respond to the pandemic – a move dubbed “facemask diplomacy”. But he has also offered support for the policies and actions of the Nicolas Maduro administration.
China strongly supports the efforts made by the Venezuelan government to guarantee health and save lives despite the most severe and criminal unilateral sanctions
On his account, which he opened in August 2016 whilst still ambassador to Chile, and which carries a bold looking avatar adorned with dark glasses, Li posts few original tweets, compared to the external links he posts or his many “retweets”.
Among the local accounts he most supports are the official television station, Venezolana de Televisión, and the television programme headed by Diosdado Cabello, a prominent ‘Chavista’ and the president of the National Constituent Assembly. He also shares posts by various Venezuelan civil and military organisations, several ministers, and the vice and foreign ministries.
Li also retweets institutionally unaffiliated pro-Maduro Twitter accounts. He disseminates web pages from La Tabla or Misión Verdad, that are government-aligned but not officially connected. According to the Venezuelan Press and Society Institute, Misión Verdad distributes pro-Maduro propaganda whilst posing as a fact verification website.
Along with Li, there are at least three other Chinese ambassadors in Latin America that are prolific on Twitter. They are led by Wei Quiang, in Panama, who has 15,400 followers. The ambassadors to Brazil, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador make up China’s other so-called “wolf warriors” around the world. They aim to counteract the “political virus” they say emanates from the US and impedes international efforts to tackle the pandemic.
17/17 COVID-19, China apoya y seguirá apoyando a Venezuela y la comunidad internacional dentro de nuestro alcance. En este momento crucial del combate contra COVID-19, sugerimos que algunas personas también tomen en serio el “virus político”. Como ya están muy enfermos de esto,
— Embajada de China en Venezuela (@Emb_ChinaVen) March 18, 2020
The Chinese embassy’s statement on the opposition’s criticism of its handling of coronavirus was republished by the Caracas-based newspaper El Universal. A thread consisting of 17 tweets that summarised the text ended with the order to ‘put on a face mask and keep quiet’ and got hundreds of retweets.
apúrese a pedir tratamiento adecuado. El primer paso podría ser usar las tapabocas y callarse.
— Embajada de China en Venezuela (@Emb_ChinaVen) March 18, 2020
Li has been China’s representative in Venezuela since November 2017 and was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for six years.
The Ambassador also collaborates with traditional media. On 4 April, he was interviewed by El Universal, the same newspaper that republished his controversial statement. Since its sale to unknown buyers in July 2014, the paper is considered part of the censored independent media.
“China strongly supports the efforts made by the Venezuelan government to guarantee health and save lives despite the most severe and criminal unilateral sanctions”, he said.
This statement was one of China’s clearest amid Venezuela’s crisis and reinforces Maduro's narrative against what he and his allies call the US "embargo”, which since 2017 has imposed severe restrictions on international trade and imports. Food and medical supplies, however, are exempt.
China clashes with Venezuela's opposition over virus
On 27 January, José Trujillo – an infectious disease specialist and representative from the opposition’s Democratic Action party – warned the National Assembly about “the possible arrival of the Chinese virus to Venezuela”. In a press release by the office of the President of the Parliament's Health Commission, he advised care to be taken with “Chinese migration”.
Trujillo used the expression “Chinese virus” again in another session in mid-April, when he criticised Maduro's response to the pandemic as public services struggled and aid for millions of families who living in poverty failed to reach them.
Despite being a doctor, Trujillo has recommended treatments for Covid-19 with anticoagulants, antibiotics and antivirals that have been refuted by the medical community. A doctor close to him personally and politically who preferred to remain anonymous told Diálogo Chino that political polarisation led him to “forget about science”.
Some press releases published by the National Communications Centre, a body created by self-declared Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó also referred to the “Chinese virus” and the expression has permeated much of the opposition’s discourse.
Among those to use the term are right-wing politician Maria Corina Machado, one of her deputies Omar González, and Ángel Torres, a member of parliament for Popular Will, the party of Leopoldo López, a prominent anti-Chavista and Guiadó’s mentor.
The same opposition party has reiterated its plan to the country's massive debt to Beijing, after reportedly having met with Chinese officials to discuss a negotiated resolution to the crisis.