Zhao was in fine form this Thanksgiving weekend, offering an eight-part tweetstorm on American racism, tweeting at one point that the US was merely suffering from “replacement anxiety” at China’s unstoppable rise (he deleted that one), then mocking the US president:
China has long claimed that America is a thief crying “stop thief” when it comes to human rights (China releases an annual human rights report on the US). Now that whattaboutist argument is meeting the American political conversation where it lives -on Twitter.
American leaders and opinion-makers have long preferred to devote attention to smaller and easier problems (the Middle East, NATO, really anything!) than the rise of a massive strategic rival with a population of 1.4 billion. Zhao’s 55,000-and-counting tweets make that a little harder -as will what he’s been retweeting this morning: The Chinese Foreign Ministry just joined Twitter, over @mfa_china.
I’ve been following Zhao since he achieved a measure of global fame in July, when he responded to global condemnation of China’s internment of its Muslim citizens with a blunt attack on American racism.
The tweet provoked heated condemnation from the US political elite, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, and he deleted it -but then followed up with an article noting Washington’s racial segregation. It was a familiar kind of rhetoric, a standard Chinese strategy with echoes from another era: Like China, the Soviet Union regularly criticized -and covertly sought to exacerbate -American racism and racial conflict. And at a moment of profound internal division in the US, it’s an effective one, hitting directly at a raw nerve rather than engaging criticism of China.
It was also a dramatic departure from Chinese diplomatic speech, which is so notoriously regimented that foreign correspondents joke about how easy it would be to play bingo for certain words at Foreign Ministry press briefings. I’d never quite seen anything like it from the representative of the Chinese government. And so when I was in Beijing last month, I DM’d Zhao one morning, and he responded 15 minutes later to suggest we meet that afternoon at a Maan Coffee down the street from the Foreign Ministry. (Our great former Beijing correspondent, Megha Rajagopalan, later told me that she had spent many hours there being dressed down by ministry officials, including for her groundbreaking coverage of the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang. The ministry declined to renew her visa in 2018.)
It is a particular modern delight to meet in real life the intense and combative people you follow on Twitter, and Zhao didn’t disappoint. In person, wearing a natty sweater and rimless glasses, he reminded me a bit of Ric Grenell, Donald Trump’s Trumpiest diplomat, the combative ambassador to Germany, whose internet aggression isn’t diminished in person; it’s just put in human context, in a way that both allows you to have a real conversation and get the sense that you’re not going to persuade him of much.
While a young colleague grabbed us cappuccinos, Zhao, who is 47, told me how he’d come to realize the power of social media in diplomacy -and that it was time to project a new Chinese “confidence, but not aggressiveness.” Born outside Beijing, he’d signed up for Twitter during a posting to Washington from 2009 to 2013. But he really began to understand its power in 2015, when he was posted to Islamabad as deputy chief of mission and tossed into a political and media culture given at times to the sorts of extreme claims and questionable connections to fact that have come into vogue in Washington.
Zhao was infuriated, in particular, by outlandish claims about the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, the multibillion-dollar version of China’s vast global investment program focused on a longtime close economic and political partner. Local politicians claimed that only Chinese workers were getting jobs -and even that those workers were actually convicts who had been sentenced to death. “Dirty lies” and the “joke of the year,” Zhao tweeted in response to these claims.
Social media, he told an Islamabad audience last year, was “a weapon to counter these negative narratives.”
And he became what one local outlet called a “household name” in Pakistan with a popular Q&A under the hashtag #AskLijianZhao. He raised eyebrows in India. He also, as BuzzFeed News has reported, linked to a group that monitored Pakistan’s Uighurs, though he denied knowing of it.
Zhao told me he knew by then that he was an outlier by the standards of any diplomatic service -and certainly the low-profile style of China’s.
“People looked at me like I was a panda -like I was an alien from Mars,” he said.
After the spat last summer, Zhao left Pakistan, and some of his followers -I, at least -understood that he’d been recalled to Beijing for saying the quiet thing loud. In fact, he’d been promoted: He reemerged this fall as the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department and played a role in a shift toward public engagement that has brought the Chinese ambassador to the US, among others, to Twitter -though none troll as hard as Zhao.
“This is a time for Chinese diplomats to tell the true picture,” he said -and to engage on Twitter, a platform on which official Chinese voices have until now played a relatively small part in global arguments. That’s a product of the fact that most of Twitter’s global debates are held in English, and of course of the fact that Zhao’s government blocks the service.
“Somebody is slandering you every day -like Pompeo, like Pence,” he grumbled. To turn on Twitter is to see that “they are badmouthing China. They are talking about Hong Kong. They are saying the protesters in Hong Kong are freedom fighters. This is totally wrong!”
(Imagine how different Twitter would be with millions of pro-government mainland Chinese voices arguing the government’s case in English for “law and order” in Hong Kong.)
Zhao rejected my suggestion that there was a contradiction in adopting the tools of an open society to make the case for a closed one. And he said he doesn’t take that ability for granted.
“If the U.S. government is unhappy with my account, maybe one day they will make Twitter close down @zlj517.”
Then he grabbed my phone to show the source of pride he shares with many of his verified brethren, one truly viral tweet: