Russia has stepped up its media relations efforts following its international isolation over the Ukraine crisis. Some have been successful, but others have flopped. Here, Yuexin Rachel Lin explores what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may have learnt from its Chinese PR offensive.
On 4 March, Russian president Vladimir Putin held a press conference giving his version of the unrest in Ukraine. He claimed that Ukraine was in a lawless state, threatened by extremists and ruled by an illegitimate government. Then, as now, he strenuously disclaimed official Russian military involvement in the fighting. The next day, the US State Department issued a ten-point rebuttal titled “President Putinʼs Fiction”, addressing these and other points raised in the conference.
The war of words then took an unexpected turn. On 9 March, the Russian embassy in China took to its official channels on Chinese microblogging websites Sina and Tencent Weibo to lash out at the Americans. In the space of ten minutes it posted eight pungent messages accusing the US of “not only a clumsy misinterpretation of objective facts, but a shameless and brazen use of double standards”.
“Regarding respect for international law and the sovereignty of other countries, the US does not and cannot have the right to point the finger,” the embassy posted. “How can it explain the bombing of Yugoslavia or the invasion of Iraq under false pretences? If we pay attention to the more distant past, we can find many examples of American military intervention where borders were crossed and there was no real threat to themselves.” The embassy proceeded to single out US involvement in Vietnam, Lebanon, Libya and Panama, among others, as evidence.
This provoked a flurry of responses among Chinaʼs netizens, for whom Sina and Tencent are the most popular microblogging platforms. According to the South China Morning Post, the embassyʼs statements provoked more than 10,000 comments and were reposted more than 60,000 times. The US embassy in China did not respond.
Charge of the web brigade
Although unusual, the Russian embassyʼs posts were only one salvo in its campaign to win the hearts of Chinese netizens. In this particular exchange, the US involvement in Vietnam was emphasised, a conflict right at Chinaʼs doorstep which had immediate and far-reaching consequences for Sino-Soviet relations. Later in March, the embassy compared Western sanctions to those imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square incident.
Voice of America journalist Hai Tao attributes this to Weiboʼs growing influence, but the more obvious answer to Russiaʼs courting of the Chinese web is its current diplomatic isolation. Whatever soft power Russia has gained over the past few years has been seriously eroded by the events in Ukraine. Little wonder that it is seeking approval in a constituency whose anti-Americanism – and long collective memory – can be relied upon.
Anti-Americanism is, after all, a rich seam in China ripe for the mining. Nowhere was this more aptly demonstrated than in the responses to the embassyʼs post. “The American imperialists have killed no small number of Chinese workers,” one Chinese netizen wrote. “Was their Chinese Exclusion Act [of 1883] just for show?
“The Native Americans gave them food and land, but the ungrateful Americans exterminated them to establish the United States,” another wrote. “Thatʼs why everyone in the world has the right to criticise America.”Yet others drew a link between Russiaʼs situation and Chinaʼs. As one blogger argued: “Ukraine is Russiaʼs bottom line, not the Westʼs. That is why Russia will win. Taiwan is Chinaʼs bottom line, not Americaʼs. But since it is much harder to send forces across the sea than by land, China must put more effort into honing its blade.”
A quick glance at the Weibo chatter over the recent MH17 report also reveals that most commenters subscribe to the theory that a Ukrainian Su-25 shot down the passenger jet. Equally prevalent is a conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians, Americans and Dutch are keeping the reportʼs conclusions vague in order to stoke up anti-Russian sentiment. This argument had earlier been put forward by pro-Russian sources.
Nevertheless, the Chinese web is not as tractable as the Russians would like. When the embassy made its debut on Weibo last year, its first post was greeted with a storm of opprobrium, with Chinese bloggers calling for the return of territories in the Amur and Maritime Provinces. These lands had been ceded to tsarist Russia in the second half of the 19th century.
Similar accusations were made in reply to the embassyʼs attempt to propagandise during the. Ukraine crisis in March. “The Russkies have no right to criticise the Americans,” one response read. “The Russkies are famous worldwide for their greed for land. Vladivostok is Chinaʼs, the Russkies must return it to China. This is critical.” Chinaʼs claim to lands in Russiaʼs Far East – to say nothing of Mongolia and Turkestan – have cropped up time and again in the discourse, and look set to continue.
The Russian embassyʼs linking of Western sanctions to Tiananmen was also a massive blunder. According to Foreign Policy, many of the 9,000 comments on the post accused Russia of “appropriating” the massacre. Bloggers took Russia to task for “ripping open Chinaʼs wounds” and wanting China to “accompany them to hell”. Others have used Weibo to share evidence of pro-Russian “terrorists” distorting photographs to exaggerate their successes.
Such mistakes are unavoidable, given Chinaʼs long collective memory and narrative of national humiliation. Any statement by Russia, no matter how bland, is destined to run aground on territorial revisionism and accusations of imperialism. Neither is China willing to serve as Russiaʼs cheerleader, or to be transparently manipulated by tales of mutual victimhood reminiscent of Sino-Soviet rhetoric. But anti-Western sentiment does exist among the Chinese, as Weiboʼs users have shown. Russiaʼs soft power agents could do well to play sensitively on that chord.