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Chinese diplomats in Africa use Twitter to promote anti-US propaganda

By Eric Olander
Posted on Wednesday, 18 August 2021 10:36

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian attends a news conference in Beijing, China September 10, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Ambassador Chen Xiaodong in Pretoria is among China's most senior and high-profile diplomats in Africa.

Like many of his peers across the continent, he’s turning to Twitter to relay anti-US propaganda produced by Chinese state media. On 10 August, Ambassador Chen picked up on the “#FortDetrick” meme that Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian sparked last month, when he called on the WHO to investigate the Chinese-led allegation that the US military’s biomedical facility in Maryland, not Wuhan, is the true origin of Covid-19.

Given that African stakeholders at all levels of government have said repeatedly that they do not want to be in the middle of another great power rivalry and that these kinds of provocative posts don’t generate any kind of meaningful online engagement (Chen’s tweet only received one like and one re-Tweet both from the same account in Tokyo) it raises the question as to why someone of Ambassador Chen’s standing would even go to the effort to post content like this if it doesn’t actually achieve anything?

There may be two reasons to consider:

  • Conveying loyalty: The audience for this kind of tweet isn’t in South Africa, or even Africa at all, but back in Beijing. Chinese diplomats use Twitter to convey their loyalty to the Party. The audience for this kind of messaging is small but key to their professional advancement.
  • Muddling the message: Ambassador Chen used the same tactic perfected by former US President Donald Trump who often made outlandish claims by “just asking questions.” The objective here is to confuse journalists, social media users, and others just enough to introduce doubt about a particular topic. This method has proven very effective at sowing division within the US about Covid-19  and the Big Lie, for example, and is now being used more often by Chinese officials.

This article was first published in The China Africa Project. 

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