Tea Leaf Nation

Russian Embassy: Sanctions Remind Us of Tiananmen Backlash

Russian diplomats are trying -- perhaps too hard -- to play up historical similarities with China.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/laihiuyeung ryanne
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/laihiuyeung ryanne

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."

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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