US, Iran trad­ing bom­bast in posts on China’s Weibo

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Javier C. Her­nan­dez

BEIJING — They ac­cuse each other of in­cit­ing vi­o­lence. They de­nounce one an­other as cor­rupt. They call each other ter­ror­ists.

As ten­sions be­tween the United States and Iran per­sist af­ter the Amer­i­can killing of a top Ira­nian gen­eral this month, the two coun­tries are wag­ing a heated bat­tle in an un­likely fo­rum: the Chi­nese in­ter­net.

The em­bassies of the United States and Iran in Beijing have pub­lished a se­ries of barbed posts in re­cent days on Weibo, a pop­u­lar Chi­nese so­cial me­dia site, at­tack­ing each other in Chi­nese and in plain view of the coun­try’s hun­dreds of mil­lions of in­ter­net users.

The U.S. Em­bassy has ac­cused Iran of “leav­ing blood­stains ev­ery­where.” The Ira­nian Em­bassy has de­nounced the Jan. 3 killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and vowed to seek the end of “Amer­ica’s evil forces in west­ern Asia.”

The bat­tle has cap­ti­vated peo­ple in China, where diplo­matic rows rarely break into pub­lic view and the govern­ment of­ten cen­sors posts about pol­i­tics.

The trolling comes at a time when the United States is pres­sur­ing U.S. tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies to cen­sor con­tent by groups the govern­ment has iden­ti­fied as ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions. Re­ports have emerged that Face­book, for ex­am­ple, is cen­sor­ing some pro-Iran posts, in­clud­ing on In­sta­gram. The com­pany said it was obliged to re­view some posts in or­der to com­ply with U.S. sanc­tions.

Iran, for its part, has for years sought to hin­der the flow of in­for­ma­tion from the West more broadly, block­ing Face­book, Twit­ter and other so­cial net­works.

Chi­nese news out­lets have cov­ered the skir­mish breath­lessly, de­scrib­ing Weibo as the “new bat­tle­field” be­tween the two coun­tries. A hash­tag re­fer­ring to the “Weibo fight” had been viewed more than 1.5 mil­lion times.

The Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties op­er­ate one of the world’s most ag­gres­sive cen­sor­ship sys­tems, rou­tinely scrub­bing re­ports, com­ments and posts on the in­ter­net that are deemed po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive or sub­ver­sive. Posts by for­eign diplo­mats are known to have been cen­sored, es­pe­cially on top­ics such as North Korea or hu­man rights.

But the govern­ment has al­lowed the war of words be­tween the United States and Iran to con­tinue, per­haps be­cause it de­flects at­ten­tion away from is­sues in China, an­a­lysts said.

“Any topic that pro­vides a dis­trac­tion from in­ter­nal prob­lems in China is ben­e­fi­cial to Beijing,” said Fer­gus Ryan, an an­a­lyst with the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute who has stud­ied China’s cen­sor­ship of posts by for­eign em­bassies.

Many Chi­nese in­ter­net users have used the oc­ca­sion to crit­i­cize the United States as an “im­pe­ri­al­ist” power, echo­ing a fa­vorite pro­pa­ganda theme of Beijing. Others have praised

Weibo for al­low­ing the dis­cus­sion to be pub­lished, re­act­ing to the news that Face­book had been cen­sor­ing some posts.

The U.S. Em­bassy, which has more than 2.6 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Weibo, said it wel­comed the de­bate.

“We ex­pect crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion and de­bate, which might in­clude both sup­port and crit­i­cism of U.S. pol­icy,” the em­bassy said in a state­ment, de­scrib­ing its ap­proach to so­cial me­dia in China.

The Ira­nian Em­bassy, with more than 300,000 fol­low­ers, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

China and Iran have sought closer re­la­tions in re­cent years, es­pe­cially as U.S. sanc­tions have in­creased eco­nomic pres­sure on Tehran.

Iran’s for­eign min­is­ter, Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif, vis­ited Beijing in late De­cem­ber, days be­fore the killing of Soleimani, to meet with his Chi­nese coun­ter­part, Wang Yi. At the meet­ing, Wang crit­i­cized over­seas “bul­ly­ing prac­tices,” a re­mark that was seen as aimed at the United States.

In its Weibo posts, the Ira­nian Em­bassy thanked Chi­nese in­ter­net users for their sup­port and sug­gested that they visit Iran.

“Safety is not an is­sue,” the em­bassy wrote.

NOEL CELIS/GETTY

China's For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi greets his Ira­nian coun­ter­part, Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif, in De­cem­ber in Beijing.

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