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On December 20, the Pentagon announced that China had returned to the United States an underwater drone that the People’s Liberation Army Navy had seized on Dec. 15 in the South China Sea, 50 nautical miles northwest of the Philippines’ Subic Bay and about 500 miles from the Chinese coast.
Not that the President Elect of the United States wanted it. On Dec. 18 , Donald Trump wrote on Twitter, “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!” He made this claim one day after complaining that China had “rip[ped] it out of water” in an “unprecedented” action. (The United States has said it was collecting scientific data in international waters; China complained cryptically that the waters were “facing” China and that it was part of a pattern of U.S. surveillance.)
This was strange statecraft, but revealing. While most coverage has focused on Trump’s pique about the drone — “let them keep it” — the most interesting part of his latest statement to Beijing was its prefix: “We should tell China…” The language raises a number of questions. Among them: Who is this “we” positioned to do the telling, if not the President-elect of the United States? And does Trump genuinely think China isn’t closely monitoring his Twitter feed?
Trump, of course, does not need to speak in the subjunctive when it comes to communicating with China. His name appears repeatedly in major news dispatches and online conversations in China; his every tweet registers in Beijing, not to mention elsewhere in the Chinese Internet, at the speed of an electron. Many Chinese have decent command of the English language, enough to make sense of his comments without a translator.
In other words, what happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter. Quite the opposite; in the age of the internet, almost everything published in any language is instantly globalized. This is true even for China, which censors thousands of foreign websites, including Twitter, as part of its so-called Great Firewall of censorship. Social media surely provides a direct (if unilateral) means of contact between politicians and their supporters. But it also creates an appearance of intimacy; in the game of high-stakes diplomacy, that can prove dangerous.
Take Trump’s drone tweet, which has been widely discussed on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, where talk of international politics and media is exceedingly common. In one particularly widely shared and widely discussed comment, one user called Trump “a viral online President who governs via Twitter.” “Merely by using Twitter,” the post reads, “Trump has repeatedly enraged China.” By “taking Twitter to extremes,” the President-elect has “shocked not just Chinese internet users, but also American internet users” with his comments.
Despite being on the wrong side of China’s Great Firewall, Twitter boasts somewhere around 10 million active Chinese users. At fraught moments, those numbers can rise; during the summer Olympic games in August, after Australian swimmer Mack Horton called out Chinese Olympian and gold medalist Sun Yang from China for doping, Sun’s loyal Weibo followers opened accounts on Twitter to demand Horton apologize. And while Facebook is blocked in China, that didn’t stop mainlanders from finding a way to flood the platform to criticize Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen following her election in January.
Chinese web users also have a history of throwing information gleaned on banned sites and platforms “over the wall” into the tended garden of China’s intranet. Perhaps most famously, in 2008 the U.S. embassy started publishing on Twitter its in-house readings of the quantity of fine particulate matter suspended in Beijing’s noxious air. In 2011, Pan Shiyi, a real estate mogul influential on Weibo who also read Twitter, joined several other Chinese online personalities in sharing the Embassy’s tweets onto Weibo. Chinese authorities blanched, but by Jan. 2012 they had announced plans to publish the data themselves. Perhaps the Great Firewall should be called the Great Semi-Permeable Membrane.
Thus far, Bejing has largely held its tongue in public when it comes to Trump. Predictably, the most heated statements have come from China’s Global Times, but that outlet, while undoubtedly useful to Beijing (and to Western journalists looking to quote a fire-breathing Chinese outlet), does not speak for the government. The overseas Chinese edition of People’s Daily, a bona fide mouthpiece, wrote that “China need not expend great energy speculating about the psychology” behind Trump’s Twitter language. (Like everyone else, Chinese users noted with amusement an earlier slip of the finger, in which he called China’s drone seizure “unpresidented” in a now-deleted post.) Chinese web users have taken delight in contrasting current President Barack Obama’s demeanor, and the statements of his administration, with the rhetoric coming from Trump and his camp. For now, that may provide Chinese observers with the illusion that what the mercurial Trump says on Twitter doesn’t really matter.
That will change soon. The looming question is whether Trump will continue to conduct his colorful Twitter diplomacy even after he takes the world’s most powerful office on January 20. Evidence has mounted that Trump’s handlers are unwilling or unable to separate him from what he sees as his most direct conduit to his constituents. But his tweets will be viewed differently once he’s elevated to Commander in Chief. If he continues to rattle his saber then, it may put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to give a forceful response.
To be sure, the Chinese government frequently tries to weaponize its people’s “hurt feelings” when a foreign country does something Beijing doesn’t like. But the Communist Party also truly cares about public opinion, and online reaction already tends to view Beijing as too soft on wayward foreign nations. Sometimes, that spills out onto the streets; what happens in cyberspace doesn’t always stay there, either.
It is possible that U.S. and Chinese diplomats will simply work around Trump’s tweets. Perhaps Washington will find a way to assure Beijing that Trump’s Twitter talk is for internal consumption only. But that will likely depend on Beijing being willing to countenance the perceived loss of face that involves — particularly if its own people aren’t in on the fix.
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