Zhao Lijian: A conspicuously undiplomatic diplomat moves onwards and upwards
Zhao Lijian has become famous for his undiplomatic outbursts on Twitter, Trump-like tweets in which the diplomat vociferously attacked China’s critics. Zhao’s social-media career coincided with a second official posting to Pakistan – for the past four years he was deputy envoy of the Chinese embassy in Islamabad (he had already enjoyed one tour of duty in Pakistan’s capital between 2009 and 2013).
Zhao was one of the first Chinese diplomats to open an official Twitter account. He tweeted about 51,000 times during his second stint in Pakistan, at the end of which he had a good 200,000 followers that he kept entertained. When the BBC devoted an entire documentary to the limits of religious freedom in Xinjiang, Zhao attacked the broadcaster sharply: “Don’t [poke] your nose everywhere. Xinjiang is none of your business. Take care of your Brexit first!” He described British calls for Chinese restraint in Hong Kong "shameless”, arguing that many Britons were descended from war criminals.
In July, he used Twitter to condemn US criticism of China's policy in Xinjiang. He argued that ingrained racism in the US undermined Washington’s right to criticize Beijing, claiming that white residents in the US capital never ventured into the southwest of the city because it was a black and Latino area. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, residents would move away and real estate prices fall.
Susan Rice, who had been President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser, quickly shot back on Twitter. She publicly called on China’s ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, to “send [Zhao] home” and defiantly decried the Chinese diplomat in Pakistan "a racist disgrace."
But Beijing appeared to have a different perspective. The view in China’s capital was that Zhao had done well in Pakistan, a country increasingly important for China, particularly for its Belt and Road Initiative. Shortly after Rice’s tweet, Beijing promoted Zhao to Deputy Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department. He now works for new Director General Hua Chunying, who is, among other things, in charge of press conferences for domestic and foreign media.
As Zhao prepared to leave Pakistan, the country’s media heaped praise on the diplomat: An extremely active advocate for China, he would have been part of an embassy “dream team.” In his last tweet from Islamabad on August 9, Zhao wrote, "I am leaving Pakistan with a heavy heart, because Pakistan has stolen my heart and, I have to leave now.” Perhaps he will tweet again in his new role.