Russian diplomats are trying -- perhaps too hard -- to play up historical similarities with China.
- By Bethany AllenBethany Allen is an editorial intern at Foreign Policy. , David WertimeDavid Wertime is senior editor of Tea Leaf Nation. David joins FP after having co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a news site dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media, which was acquired by the FP Group in Sept. 2013. A former lawyer in New York and Hong Kong, David first encountered China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has appeared on BBC television, Al Jazeera English, Public Radio International, Voice of America, and other outlets as a commentator on China. Originally from the Philadelphia area, David holds a law degree from Harvard and an English degree from Yale, where he was executive editor of the Yale Herald.
The Russian Embassy in Beijing has just committed a large digital diplomacy gaffe, one the size and shape of a certain public square in China’s capital.
On March 26, the Russian Embassy’s official account on Sina Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform, argued that "Western sanctions are only drawing Russia and China closer," referring to the suspension of military cooperation with Russia after its recent annexation of Crimea. What do the two have in common? "Russia’s current situation somewhat resembles what China suffered after the Tiananmen incident." That comment, which refers to Western backlash against a brutal suppression of student protesters in Tiananmen square in June 1989, touches something of a third rail in Chinese history, one which Communist Party authorities have been careful to minimize in the officially sanctioned version of China’s not-so-distant past.
This isn’t the first time the Russian Embassy has issued strident language on Chinese social media aimed at bringing Chinese netizens to the Russian side. On March 9, defending its actions in Crimea and playing to anti-American sentiment prevalent among some Chinese, the Russian Embassy posted a brief Weibo history of U.S. incursions into foreign soil. On March 20 it published a blog post called "History and Reality," asserting that Russia’s claim to Crimea dates back to 1783 — an appeal to history that China’s patriotic and history-conscious citizenry can relate to, given China’s long-standing assertion that the hotly disputed Diaoyu Islands, currently administered by Japan, have belonged to China since the Ming Dynasty.
But invoking the specter of Tiananmen, however vague in the eyes of China’s predominantly young netizens, is a more daring assay, and many of the 9,000 comments expressed strong disdain for — or even mocked — Russia’s appropriation of Tiananmen for its own political gain. One commenter asked, "Do you want to rip open China’s wounds?" One user warned, "Do not fear god-like enemies; fear pig-like allies." Another Weibo user complained, "Russia and the former Soviet Union swallowed up large swaths of Chinese territory on more than one occasion." Indeed, just seven days ago, thousands of Chinese web users maintained that Crimea’s fate resembled Mongolia’s after a 1945 Soviet-backed referendum there, which some Chinese believe took territory that was rightfully theirs.
Other users feigned ignorance of the student uprising altogether, given the degree to which official history seeks to downplay its occurrence. One comment sarcastically asked, "What Tiananmen incident? I can’t find it on Baidu," China’s most popular search engine. And in a rare uncensored mention of the uprising events, another user wrote, "[This] is different from the Tiananmen incident — at least you aren’t executioners, freely slaughtering peaceful citizens."