Zhao Lijian thrives on controversy. Aggressive promotion of China’s interests is expected for a foreign ministry spokesperson, but Mr Zhao has pioneered an extreme approach by becoming a populist provocateur who owes his career to a willingness to shock, needle and troll Beijing’s critics on Twitter.
For Beijing, he has crystallised a model for diplomacy with a jagged edge and driven the shift away from an older generation of more conservative and restrained engagement, analysts said.
The diplomatic furore that Mr Zhao set off last week, when he tweeted a computer-generated image of an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child, was the latest in a string of incendiary incidents that delight Chinese nationalists.
In a sign of acceptance of Mr Zhao’s tactics, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think-tank that reports to China’s State Council, in May released a series of strategy documents on the need to “strengthen China’s ability to fight for international public opinion”. It said China had to “counterattack” against critics on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all of which are blocked in mainland China.
As China’s most high-profile official on Twitter, with nearly 860,000 followers, Mr Zhao, 48, has built a personal brand that is rare for a foreign ministry spokesperson.
A position of middling power in the Chinese bureaucracy, spokespeople had typically confined themselves to scripted reiteration of Beijing’s stance and the occasional outburst over issues such as the South China Sea or Taiwan.
“Historically, there was quite a lot of criticism [within China] of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for being too willing to compromise or even lacking in backbone,” Dali Yang, of the University of Chicago, said.
Mr Zhao’s eagerness to push boundaries has occasionally sparked resistance in China’s foreign policy establishment.
When he backed a conspiracy theory in March that the US army could have brought the virus to Wuhan during Military World Games, it was followed by a flurry of statements from senior diplomats, including Fu Ying, deputy chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, calling for restraint in diplomacy.
But these differences probably reflect contrasting styles among diplomats rather than a substantive disagreement, said Mr Yang.
“Overall [the young generation’s] hardline stance and ability to have such influence on the global discourse means they clearly enjoy support within the Chinese leadership,” he said.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has done away with China’s policy to “bide its time and hide its strength”, instead calling for Beijing to be more assertive in spreading its message.
In response, the foreign ministry has raised its profile, intensifying a no-holds-barred approach to combating perceived slights, which has been dubbed “wolf warrior” diplomacy after a series of jingoistic Chinese action films.
The tactics, however, risk a backlash. Surveys suggest perceptions of China are at an all-time low in western democracies but the new strategy is hugely popular at home, said Yun Jiang, a director at the China Policy Centre, a research institute in Canberra. “Everyone loves good old-fashioned nationalism,” she added.
Starting in 2015, Mr Zhao pioneered his aggressive Twitter use while rebuffing criticism of China’s investment in Pakistan as minister counsellor at the embassy in Islamabad. As his following grew, he began to post outside his brief, frequently accusing the US of hypocrisy and ulterior motives in sanctioning Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
In July 2019, Mr Zhao engaged in a sparring match with Susan Rice, former national security adviser to Barack Obama, the former US president. He had defended China’s mass internment campaign in Xinjiang by comparing tensions between the Han majority and mostly Muslim Uighur minority with race relations in the US.
In a now deleted tweet, Mr Zhao wrote: “If you’re in Washington, D.C., you know the white never go to the SW area because it’s an area for the black & Latin. There’s a saying ‘black in & white out’.” Ms Rice responded by calling him “a racist disgrace”.
A month later, he was promoted to foreign ministry spokesman.
Mr Zhao is a relative outsider of China’s diplomatic establishment, having attended Central South University instead of one of the usual feeder universities for the foreign ministry. His career has instead been propelled by his loyal following on Chinese social media, where he is known as an “internet celebrity diplomat”.
Many of his fans are young, tech savvy and openly nationalist. Hua Zhong, a student in her early 20s, said she liked Mr Zhao because of his sharp tone and his “persistence in fighting tirelessly [with] shameless western politicians”.
Despite Twitter having been blocked in China since 2009, their diplomats have opened dozens of new accounts in the past two years. Posts from Chinese officials are often translated and shared widely on social media.
Mr Yang said China’s foreign ministry had an advantage against interlocutors because it has ready access to international social media platforms, while accounts of foreign leaders and diplomats are regularly censored in China.
Last Wednesday WeChat, one of China’s largest social media platforms, removed a post by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison about Mr Zhao’s tweet directed at Chinese Australians.
“I don’t think the west has fully appreciated that China can create a bubble of its own [at home],” said Mr Yang, “and at the same time interact with the rest of the world in this new way [on western social media].”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing