China and the World

The war on weibo

Iranian diplomats clash with their US counterparts, as netizens watch


Had an online dialogue in Chinese

Some of China’s historians regard the 1904 Russo-Japanese War as one of the greatest insults to China’s territorial integrity. Despite knowing that the combatants were encroaching into territory in China’s northeast, the Qing government declared itself neutral while the fighting took place. Countless Chinese civilians were killed as a result.

In present-day China another fierce battle has broken out in a place that the government nominally controls. Yet this time what’s happening is being perceived as an illustration of China’s rising status as a global power.

Why so? In this case the conflict is a war of words between the United States and Iran, and it has been happening on Sina Weibo, one of the most popular social media discussion platforms in China.

Ever since the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force Qasem Soleimani was killed by an airstrike in Iraq, the Beijing embassies of both countries have engaged in a fierce online confrontation on weibo – all in the Chinese language. It started with a message from the Iranian embassy on its weibo account on January 3, which translated a Twitter post by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, calling the assassination of Soleimani a “dangerous and foolish act of international terrorism”. The American embassy then countered a day later by posting remarks (again in Chinese) made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and insisting that Donald Trump’s order to kill Soleimani had made the world a safer place.

The row worsened after Iran launched missile attacks against US bases in Iraq, with the Iranians declaring that “the end of the malign US presence in West Asia has begun”. The American embassy fired back by doubling down on its rebuke of the Iranian general, describing him as an evil man who had killed hundreds of people.

Chinese netizens pulled out the popcorn, watching all of this with interest. The number of people following the Iranian embassy’s weibo account jumped to nearly 300,000 from 50,000 over a few days. Followers of the US account also increased by about 100,000 to 2.6 million. Some started to call it the “Battle of Liangmaqiao”, after the embassy district in Beijing.

“Trump is ruling his country with Twitter. And Iran is declaring war against the US on weibo. Our world has changed,” one netizen wrote.

“A war of words is better than a real war, at least, and we are glad to offer such a debating platform,” another claimed generously.

One post particularly stood out, earning plenty of likes from readers, although perhaps because it was tongue-in-cheek. “Twitter banned [posts from] the president of Syria and an Iranian leader. Now the Iranian and American ambassadors are arguing with each other on weibo… And in Chinese,” it said. “The Chinese internet has become the most uncensored environment for international political discussions!”

Many foreign embassies have opened accounts on weibo to engage with local audiences in China. Realising its weibo’s new popularity, the Iranian embassy has even been using it to invite Chinese tourists to spend the upcoming holiday season in Tehran (assuming they’re unfazed by this week’s street protests after the Iranian military accidentally downed a Boeing jet).

The situation in Iran is still a flashpoint for Sino-US relations. Chinese powerhouses Huawei (see WiC458) and ZTE (see WiC317) have both fallen victim to American sanctions because of their dealings with Iranian entities, while US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News this week that Washington is lobbying Beijing to cut off imports of Iranian oil. Purchases have dropped since the US halted sanctions waivers last year but some business has persisted. “They’ve cut off all of the state companies from buying oil, and we’re working closely with them to make sure that they cease all additional oil activities,” Mnuchin told Fox.

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