11 January 31
Written by Nithin Coca

In early December, amid rising tensions between Australia and China, Prime Minister Scott Morrison posted a statement on the Chinese social media platform WeChat to voice his outrage at an incendiary tweet from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Within a day, WeChat, which routinely polices sensitive content on its platform, had blocked Morrison’s post, ostensibly for violating the company’s policies.

It was not the only instance of a foreign official being censored on a Chinese social media platform. The most prominent offenders are WeChat—the largest social media site in China, with over 1 billion active users—and Weibo, a microblogging platform that is similar to Twitter. Sites like these are the only way for foreign governments and their diplomats to reach Chinese audiences online, as the so-called Great Firewall blocks access to nearly all foreign social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.

Censorship of overseas content in China is nothing new, of course, but the scale and frequency of the practice has accelerated in recent years. A 2018 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute highlighted numerous examples, most notably in May 2018, when the U.S. Embassy in China issued a riposte on Weibo to Beijing’s request that foreign airlines identify Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong as “Chinese territories.” The embassy’s post, which criticized China’s “Orwellian nonsense,” remained viewable on Weibo but only to users with a direct link. The sharing function was turned off and responses were carefully tailored to include only those that reflected the government’s position.

2020 was perhaps the worst year yet for foreign officials trying to get their message out directly to the Chinese people. When violent clashes erupted along China’s border with India last June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on the matter was removed from WeChat. Similarly, the British Embassy in China’s rebuttal of Chinese state media outlets’ assertions about pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong was taken down.

This recent trend indicates “a much more assertive approach overall by Beijing, which is consistent with China’s increasingly assertive approach to the world in general in the past year or two, on many fronts,” said Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In addition to causing headaches for foreign diplomats, the Chinese government’s unique ability to control content on Weibo, WeChat and other platforms has created an uneven playing field. They control what foreign embassies and governments can say in China, while having free rein abroad, where their own staff face few restrictions to what they can say on Twitter and Facebook.

Until recently, this asymmetry was not a major concern, simply because China’s presence on foreign media platforms was minimal. But Beijing has made a concerted effort to expand its outreach on Twitter in recent years. As the French researcher Antoine Bondaz has documented, the number of Twitter accounts held by Chinese diplomats grew nearly four-fold between July 2019 and July 2020, from 38 to 151. Today, hundreds of Chinese diplomats, embassies and state media staff regularly post content on Twitter and Facebook as part of an increasingly sophisticated propaganda operation.

Faced with censorship on Chinese platforms and a spike in disinformation being spread by official Chinese accounts on Western platforms, some governments are pushing back.

Some of the accounts belonging to Chinese diplomats have become increasingly aggressive, earning them the nickname “wolf warriors,” after the title of a patriotic Chinese action movie. Some of their comments are openly racist, and they have become notorious for spreading disinformation about protesters in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, and China’s persecution of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Last year, conspiracy theories about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic frequently appeared on verified Chinese government accounts, as when Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, baselessly claimed on Twitter that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.

Faced with the rise of censorship on Chinese platforms and the corresponding spike in disinformation being spread by official Chinese accounts on Western platforms, some governments have begun to push back. After the British Embassy’s statement on Hong Kong’s protests was censored, it released a statement giving details of what happened and highlighting the discrepancies in media access. But there is a limit to how much governments can do in this regard. The U.S. government doesn’t have the power to force Twitter or Facebook to remove posts from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, nor can it contest the actions of Weibo or WeChat in China.

Is there recourse in international law, then? After all, China is challenging a longstanding norm of diplomacy. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations requires signatories to “permit and protect free communication” on the part of foreign diplomats “for all official purposes.” Of course, the convention’s drafters could not have imagined social media accounts would allow embassies to communicate directly with citizens in their host countries. The norms of diplomacy have not been adapted or updated for our modern digital world, allowing China to step in and exert unique control over online speech by foreign envoys.

Unfortunately, in a world where multilateralism is increasingly under siege and even nuclear arms control treaties are in danger of lapsing, there isn’t much momentum to codify and protect digital diplomatic speech. This is unfortunate, because foreign diplomatic missions have long served as rare facilitators of open and frank discourse in China. For many years, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was the most reliable source of air pollution data in the country, while the Canadian and Swiss embassies hosted world-renowned artists like Ai Weiwei, who is otherwise unable to exhibit his works publicly due to his past criticism of the Chinese government.

But China’s control over its domestic digital sphere means that these embassies are often unable to facilitate such dialogue online. This is a serious constraint, especially in the COVID-19 era, when organizing in-person travel or events is increasingly challenging.

In response to pressure to get tougher on Chinese officials, Twitter and Facebook have become more active in removing pro-China bot networks, and are now labeling Chinese government, state media and diplomatic accounts as such. Some American lawmakers have demanded they go further, arguing that if Beijing blocks certain social media platforms, those same platforms should not allow Chinese government officials to create accounts. Yet leaders of U.S. tech companies seem hesitant to take such a step, or even to police content from foreign diplomats and media outlets.

Only one country has, so far, decided to fight fire with fire. After the June border clashes, India blocked more than 200 Chinese apps, including WeChat and Weibo. But New Delhi can’t prevent Chinese officials from continuing to spread disinformation on Twitter and Facebook within the country.

One thing that seems certain is that more governments will speak out against China’s censorship of their officials, as the U.K. did in response to its embassy’s statement about Hong Kong being removed from WeChat.
“The censorship needs to be called out aggressively and highlighted to the Chinese-speaking community in these countries—and to citizens in general,” said Kurlantzick. After all, censorship may not be preventable, but self-censorship is.