Is Zhao Lijian, as his Twitter handle says, the “Deputy for Director General in the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China” — or is he just the latest candidate to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination?
Last week, in response to Congress passing a law expressing support for the protesters in Hong Kong, Mr. Zhao tweeted a scathing denunciation of the United States. But what was striking was that Mr. Zhao’s jabs were not the typical anti-U.S. fare that comes out regularly from Beijing’s propaganda apparatus. He did not denounce U.S. “imperialism” or our penchant for “meddling” abroad, as is the usual script, for instance.
In fact, Mr. Zhao’s critique of the U.S. was downright, well, “woke.”
“Man-made human rights disasters in US are everywhere. The most typical example is humanitarian disaster caused by sudden change in US immigration policy on Mexico border: thousands of refugees are forcibly separated [and] tens of thousands of children are held in dirty, small rooms,” Mr. Zhao tweeted, in a message that could just have easily come out of a Sen. Elizabeth Warren stump speech. “Racial discrimination, gun violence, violent law enforcement are chronic diseases deeply rooted in US society, [and] there is no hope of solving them in the context of social & political polarization in US.”
In the past, Mr. Zhao has even offered an (outdated) withering critique of the nation’s capital, suggesting that “whites” avoid the Southeast and Southwest quadrants of the city — news, I’m certain, to the denizens of those rapidly gentrifying parts of the city.
Mr. Zhao is something of a rarity in the normally staid confines of China’s Foreign Ministry. He has used Twitter aggressively, both in his current role in Beijing and at his prior post in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he served for about eight years. (China’s foreign ministry must have a VPN that gets around the “Great Firewall,” given that Twitter is blocked for ordinary Chinese internet users.) He once famously got in a Twitter spat with Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s former national security adviser. Much earlier in his career, Mr. Zhao served in D.C., which may help to explain why his notions of life in Washington are rather antiquated.
So perhaps Mr. Zhao is a bit of a loose cannon, tweeting what he feels like without considering a broader strategy. Or perhaps Mr. Zhao’s sentiments are representative of a new information strategy being employed by Beijing.
The Soviet Union constantly denounced the failures of the U.S. system — poverty, homelessness, and other depredations. And to this day, North Korean television and print media relentlessly hawk bad news from South Korea — random slip and falls in Seoul showers are basically front-page news in North Korea.
Beijing, though, surely realizes it has a major public relations problem on its hands.
China has grown extremely unpopular in the U.S. The Hong Kong bill that sparked its ire passed overwhelmingly, and was bipartisan. The Democrats running for president routinely criticize President Trump for just about all of his policies — except for his tough approach to Beijing. Polling from Pew Research shows that the majority of Americans view China unfavorably.
Mr. Zhao’s tweets, then, suggest a new strategy of attempting to appeal to America’s political left — to breach what is now a firmly bipartisan consensus that Beijing is home to an ill-behaved and indeed menacing regime.
The trouble, of course, is that it would be hard to imagine a regime less “woke” than Beijing. Accepting Mr. Zhao’s critiques of American social injustice as sincere is tantamount to believing a heartfelt denunciation of murder and cannibalism from the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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