As our study points out, two approaches to content development characterize the posts, one proactive and one reactive. The former seeks to promote China in a positive light — this includes publicizing its donations, highlighting its cooperation with the World Health Organization, stressing the importance of international cooperation, and explaining China’s handling of the pandemic. The latter is defensive and seeks to counter external images that reflect negatively on China and the CCP — this includes topics like the Hong Kong national security law, the Uyghur internment camps in Xinjiang, and China’s disputes with other countries in the South China Sea.
Another interesting finding: These official accounts sought to support and amplify the voices of local officials and government entities with favorable views of China. Over 35% of the accounts most mentioned belong to LAC presidents, prime ministers, ministers, members of parliament, and other government officials and entities. These mentions were usually related to local officials thanking China, a Chinese company, or a partner city in China for donations and their support in fighting the pandemic.
As for attacks against the U.S., they mostly came from a small group of accounts, namely those of the Chinese ambassadors to Grenada, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Consul General in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. These accounts were notoriously aggressive in their tone, in many cases posting false information. The account of the ambassador to Venezuela, Lǐ Bǎoróng 李宝荣, for example, constantly posts disinformation about the United States, and retweets anti-U.S. content from the accounts of dictator Nicolas Maduro and his subordinates. It is worth mentioning that Ambassador Li´s account was by far the most active, with 6.859 tweets between November 2019 and June 2020, followed by the account of the ambassador to Panama, Wèi Qiáng 魏强, with 4.841, and that of the ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Zhāng Rùn 张润, with 1.319.
Professionally trained diplomats and propaganda that rings true
Putting the above-mentioned accounts aside, most of the jabs taken at the U.S. were more subtle, more intelligent, and better suited for a local audience. Instead of attacking the U.S. directly, “wolf warrior” style, it is a lot more common for posts to exploit the contradictions of Washington politics and the U.S. media. For example, there were instances where Chinese state broadcaster CGTN Spanish cited dubious claims by a news anchor at Fox News and disproved them by citing investigations by the New York Times or Washington Post. Likewise, contained within the message of international cooperation (e.g., support for the WHO and LAC institutions), constant allusions to “countries that seek to do things unilaterally” are made, while at the same time promoting China as a reliable and able partner at a time of crisis. This discourse rings true to a lot of people in LAC, and the fact remains that the Chinese government and Chinese companies have contributed significantly to the region with their donations. Most importantly, they have done a great job in publicizing their contributions.
The other aspect of China’s public diplomacy in LAC is the professionalization of its diplomatic corps. Chinese officials are now better trained and more knowledgeable about their host countries compared with just a decade ago. For starters, almost every Chinese ambassador in LAC speaks fluent Spanish and has some background in Latin American studies — in addition, the ambassador to Brazil speaks fluent Portuguese. Probably one of the best examples of an intelligent appointment has been that of Ambassador Lán Hǔ 蓝虎 in Colombia early this year. Between 2012 and 2016, then political adviser Lan was based at the Chinese Embassy in Venezuela. Afterward, he returned to China, where he worked at the Latin America Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for four years before being assigned to the Chinese Embassy in Colombia. The governments of Colombia and Venezuela have been clashing for more than a decade, and Colombia has been the country most affected by the massive exodus of Venezuelans seeking refuge due to the economic and social crises ravaging the country. Beijing needed someone in Bogotá versed in Venezuelan politics and with a low profile who could navigate the minefield that Colombia-Venezuela relations has become. It found the perfect guy for the job. Ambassador Lan has been adroit in avoiding trouble in Colombia from the Venezuelan issue, while at the same time bringing Bogotá and Beijing closer together.
China’s public diplomacy in LAC amid the pandemic brings the evolution of the country’s diplomatic playbook into plain sight. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 phenomenon. It is the result of a two-decade learning curve. It is unclear whether the newfound voices of the Chinese foreign ministry will bring about the strengthening of Sino-Latin American relations that China seems to be aiming at. Nonetheless, one thing remains clear: Chinese diplomats will not sit idly by and let others “tell China’s story.”