In yet another move that reveals the testy relationship between China and the American micro-blogging site Twitter, the latter has locked the official Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy to the United States. The removal came after the embassy made a post in which it referred to Uighur women in China as "baby-making machines" prior to Beijing's policies in the western region of Xinjiang, where critics say China is engaged in the forced sterilization of minority Uighur women.
Last year, the Chinese government was reported to be taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encouraged some of the country’s Han majority to have more children.
On January 7, 2020, the Chinese embassy tweeted that Uyghur women in Xinjiang were no longer "baby-making machines" suffering under extremism following the country's "interventions" with the population. This is in contrast with international media reports that allege over 2 million Uyghur Muslims are locked in internment camps in Xinjiang province in what is being termed as a "genocidal" attack on the minority Muslim population.
The tweet was deleted by Twitter which found it violating its rule against dehumanising persons or communities on the platform. The move has once again highlighted the alleged forced sterilization of Uyghur women, which has caused international outrage against the Xi Jinping government.
With the move, it seems Twitter which has increasingly been making its censorship rules be known through suspension of powerful accounts like that of Donald Trump, has turned the tables on China after the country increased its use of the platform in 2020.
Though it remains banned in China due to censorship concerns, Twitter is far from being new to Chinese media and propaganda. In the past year, NBC News noted that China doubled down on its presence on Twitter by increasing the number of Twitter accounts held by Chinese officials and embassies and also increased the number of tweets from them as well as from Chinese state media to win the Covid-19 information war. In fact, from the month of April to May last year, China reportedly pushed 90,000 tweets from official accounts, over double the number of tweets seen since January.
Throughout 2020, China has increased its use of social media to share what can experts have termed "conspiracy theories" against the US, accusing them of cooking up the virus in its lab.
According to data collected by the Alliance for Securing Democracy's Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, Chinese accounts became increasingly more aggressive and territorial in 2020.
2/2 CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation! pic.twitter.com/vYNZRFPWo3— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) March 12, 2020
Outrage over censorship
Twitter removal of the Chinese tweet regarding the "emancipation" of Uyghur women is the second such censorial action taken by Twitter in 2020, The first came on January 8 when the Jack Dorsey-owned site permanently suspended the account of former United States President Donald Trump for inciting MAGA supporters to riot in Capitol Hill.
While the suspension of Trump evoked both appreciation and concern over censorship, the removal of the Chinese tweet led to outrage of Weibo, the Chinese counterpart of the microblogging app.
"What is freedom of speech? It is that the Weibo account of the US embassy in China can still voice its opinions, whereas the account of the Chinese embassy is locked by Twitter," Quartz quoted a Chinese user as saying in reaction to the removal.
The report, however, argued that Twitter's censorship of tweets is not nearly equatable to the censorship that China itself carries out on social media. While platforms like Twitter are banned altogether in China, content posted on permitted sites like Weibo is also tightly censored by state media.
Take the case of citizen journalist Chen Qiushi who reported on the Wuhan crisis during the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The journalist's social media accounts were deleted after he traveled to Hong Kong to report on the ongoing crisis. Chen has not been seen for several months.
China also jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, whose ground reports and videos from Wuhan went viral on social media last year.
Nevertheless, the removal of the Chinese tweet was met with a "puzzled" Chinese reaction. fake reports and information related to Xinjiang.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the blocking was "puzzling" and stated that in the removed tweet, the Chinese embassy had been trying to correct misinformation about Xinjiang.
"We hope Twitter can uphold the principle of objectivity and impartiality, not to show double standards on this issue, but to strengthen screening, and identify what is false information, what are rumors and lies, and what is fact and truth," the statement said.
Not the first time
Twitter's onslaught on misinformation spread by shadow accounts from countries across the world including China is not new.
In April 2020, the account of the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka was "mistakenly" deleted a week after it was found to be using offensive language on Twitter. Following outrage from the Chinese embassy regarding disruption of freedom of speech, Twitter restored the account and said, "This account was mistakenly caught in a spam filter. This has been reversed and the account has been reinstated".
In June last year, the microblogging site listed over 30,000 accounts that it said shared foreign state-linked information operations from countries like China, Turkey, and Russia. According to a report in Forbes, the move dealt a huge blow to the 'Wu Mao' network - the controversial name for the shadow network of bots and tweets allegedly controlled by Chinese media to control social media narratives.
Vox news reported on these 'Wolf Warriors' of China - essentially diplomats playing trolls on social media. In December, one such diplomat shared an edited image of the Australian army holding a knife to an Afghan child's throat in order to defame Australia amid rising trade tensions between the two nations.
The dance of the blue bird and red dragon has been of interest to observers of internet safety and freedom and many note that China has increasingly been using Twitter and other social media platforms that are banned domestically to amplify pro-Xinping and pro-China voices in Western social media and to nullify reports of human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.