March 25, 2020

PROFILE: Zhao Lijian, China’s aggressive Twitter diplomat

MERICS


As the spokesperson for China’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian should be able to combine clear words and diplomatic skills. However, in tackling the Coronavirus crisis, the 47-year old career diplomat may have overstepped the mark. Via his Twitter account, which has attracted almost half a million followers, he helped push a conspiracy theory circulating on Chinese social media that it was the US army that brought the dangerous virus to Wuhan.

“When did patient zero begin in the US?” Zhao asked on Twitter, which is blocked in the People’s Republic, and went on demanding “transparency” from US President Donald Trump: “You owe us an explanation,” he said. It can be assumed that Zhao’s undiplomatic outbursts have Beijing’s approval in times, when the leadership in Beijing is struggling with criticism for mishandling the outbreak in the early stages. Zhao is an experienced Twitter user, who relishes launching blunt attacks on China’s critics.

Zhao was one of the first Chinese diplomats to open an official Twitter account. His start of his social-media career coincided with a second official posting to Pakistan – for four years he was deputy envoy at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. As a Foreign ministry spokesperson, he has continued tweeting daily on current events using a style reminiscent of Trump himself.

His bold approach to the Corona topic, however, seems to displease some of his colleagues. China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, has openly criticized the conspiracy theories Zhao helped to spread as crazy and damaging. Zhao is now trying to tone down his rhetoric on Twitter and has reverted to diplomatic lingo, but only shortly afterwards, he hit back at the US’s use of the term “China virus”, calling it racist. It seems clear that China’s aggressive Twitter diplomat has no intention of retiring.

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