China Power

The New US-China Battlefield Over the COVID-19 Narrative: Poland

Largely via Twitter, the U.S. and Chinese ambassadors to Poland have engaged in a fierce debate over COVID-19.

By Paulina Uznanska and Marian Fila for
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The New US-China Battlefield Over the COVID-19 Narrative: Poland

In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018 file photo, Georgette Mosbacher stands next to an Unides States flag after receiving her credentials as new United States ambassador to Poland at the Belweder Palacein Warsaw, Poland.

Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, file

Poland has an extensive tradition of hosting ambassadorial talks, one of the most important dating back to 1958. At that time, the negotiations between Poland-based ambassadors of the United States and the People’s Republic of China set the stage for U.S. recognition of the government in Beijing. The legacy has a strong resonance now as Poland once more becomes a place of dialogue between the two superpowers, with notable differences. The discussion no longer takes place in secrecy, confined by the walls of the Myslewicki Palace. Instead, it rages on Twitter and in Polish media, attracting domestic and international attention through an increasingly fierce and often undiplomatic rhetoric. For now, there has been a notable silence from the Polish side, but the situation continues to develop fast and in an unpredictable direction.

Battle on Social Media

The modern incarnation of ambassadorial talks developed only recently between the current ambassadors to Poland, Liu Guangyuan representing China and Georgette Mosbacher representing the United States. Although both hold equivalent positions, they come from different backgrounds and represent divergent approaches to diplomacy. Liu is a career diplomat who made himself known as an ambassador willing to support charity initiatives and engage in dialogue with Polish students. Before coming to Warsaw, he worked in the Chinese embassies to the United States, Nigeria and Kenya. On the other hand, Mosbacher comes from a business and philanthropic background. In spite of initial controversies, she is generally well received thanks to the recent removal of visa requirements for Polish visitors to the United States, which came into place during her term in office.

Even though the two ambassadors arrived in Poland at a similar time, in 2018, their social media presence is quite different. Mosbacher established a Twitter account shortly after her arrival and thanks to active use amassed around 30,000 followers. Ambassador Liu only recently joined the platform, in March 2020, and since then gained 3,000 followers. His arrival can be seen as part of a larger trend of Chinese diplomats joining Twitter, which began with Cui Tiankai, Chinese ambassador to the United States, in June 2019. This development is especially interesting as Twitter is officially blocked in China and access to it is only available through the use of a VPN. 

Although originally both ambassadors discussed primarily the role their governments and businesses play in supporting the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Poland, it did not take long until their feeds were occupied with a fierce debate between them. The row between the diplomats goes beyond appeasing their supervisors. It rages on for the hearts and minds of both Polish and international audiences. While none of them speak Polish, both Liu and Mosbacher publish many of their tweets in two languages, Polish and English. Mosbacher tends to translate all her tweets into Polish, while Liu translates only some of the most important tweets, including those criticising the United States. 

The feud between the diplomats should be seen in a broader perspective that includes increasing tensions on the highest political level. In Poland, it began with the tweets of Hua Chunying, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, who is known for being an outspoken critic of the United States. On March 20, Mosbacher retweeted Morgan Ortagus, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, who criticised comments made by Hua Chunying. Two days later, Liu retweeted Hua’s article about the U.S. government pushing officials to criticize China, with an additional comment saying that “blaming others would not make America great again.”

The exchange of courtesies was brought to another level in April, when Liu stated on Twitter that American politicians behave “disgracefully and immorally,” tagging Mosbacher in the tweet. Since then, Liu’s posts have become increasingly U.S.-centered. He accused the U.S. government of “hallucination of sinophobia,” “spreading political viruses” and “being disruptor-in-chief in the global fight against COVID,” concluding that their actions led to a “humanitarian disaster.” 

The same month, Mosbacher commented on Liu’s post, arguing that the CCP focused on its own political survival rather than helping the Chinese people. Over time, the discussion between Liu and Mosbacher became increasingly personal, often including multiple tweets a day and taking place on most days. The ambassadors began to tag each other in their tweets, and discuss their personal experiences, such as Mosbacher’s past visits to China. While they covered a wide variety of topics, the main themes are responsibility for the pandemic, competence of the two governments, the international aid of both nations and ideas such as democracy and freedom of expression.

The feud also took a different dimension when Mosbacher shared information about Chinese bot accounts criticizing her on Twitter. After reviewing the response sections of tweets made by the U.S. ambassador, it is easy to see how pervasive the issue is. A majority of comments are made by recently created accounts, posting nothing but criticism of the U.S. ambassador and snippets from Chinese state media. Interestingly, those published in Polish were clearly written either by non-native speakers or generated through an AI translator. Fundamentally, both the use of bots on the social media platform and the increasingly active discussion suggests that a new battleground emerged, for the ideational conflict between the United States and China.

Enter Traditional Media

Although Twitter is the key battleground at the moment for the Sino-American debate in Poland, the ambassadors also make use of more traditional media to communicate their narratives on the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent case included a 30-page document titled “Facts refuting American myths about the coronavirus and China,” sent to Polish journalists by the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw. The report — a Polish translation of a long piece published earlier by Xinhua, the Chinese state-run press agency — denied allegations ranging from a lack of transparency in data released by China to discrimination against Africans during the COVID-19 outbreak. Surprisingly, to support the Chinese narrative the author referred to Abraham Lincoln and selected articles from foreign agencies, such as Politico, the BBC and CNN. 

Although both ambassadors are increasingly active in the Polish traditional media, they often take fundamentally different approaches. While Liu’s involvement was limited to publishing opinions and official statements, Mosbacher is more eager to engage in live interviews. The different methods of communication can be related back to the journalistic practices characteristic to both countries. Given the recent history of post-Communist transformation, it would be expected to see the American model reaching a more fertile ground in Poland. Surprisingly though, the Polish media have been equally receptive to both forms of communication.

The Chinese side took its first attempt to shape the narrative in traditional media in February, when Rzeczpospolita — the leading daily economic and legal newspaper in Poland — published an interview with Ambassador Liu. The interview had a simple question-answer form, with no attempts by the journalist to challenge or at least hold a discussion with the Chinese ambassador. However, it was a text published a month later that was coldly received by the Polish audiences. On March 17, Rzeczpospolita published Liu’s article on international cooperation and China’s endeavors to stop the pandemic. The article, written in overwhelmingly flowery language, included Chinese rhetoric of “never forgetting the original intention and remembering the mission” (不忘初心 牢记使命). Liu also took the opportunity to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping for “giving orders during this gunfire-free war” and “taking fast and decisive actions” in the time of COVID-19. The comments published online accused Rzeczpospolita of spreading crude propaganda and raised questions whether the article was sponsored content.

Mosbacher used this turn of events to continue her critical stance on China and accused Beijing of a lack of transparency in an interview with Onet, the largest news portal in Poland. Soon after, in an interview with TVN24, Poland’s major TV channel which is owned by a U.S. company, she stated that freedom of speech and expression should be a fundamental value of any country, and that the lack of such freedom caused Beijing to not inform the world about the threat of COVID-19 on time. Although the majority of her media presence is focused on the U.S.-Poland relationship, she rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the Chinese side. 

Implications

The emerging media feud between the U.S. and Chinese ambassadors to Poland is a sign that the war of words between the two superpowers continues to escalate dramatically. The battle is not simply aimed at appeasing domestic audiences and challenging the opponent, its final target is broader and includes winning the hearts and minds of other countries, such as Poland. Importantly, at the time of writing there has been no official response from the Polish government to this feud. The battle has not attracted significant national attention yet either; however, most probably it will gain more prominence soon. Fundamentally, Warsaw is stuck at a crossroad with two foreign actors striving to promote their contradictory narratives on the COVID-19 crisis. In this way, Poland has become a lens in which one can see the increasingly harsh rivalry between the United States and China. It remains to be seen which one will prove more successful.

Paulina Uznanska is a sinologist serving as deputy head of the Polish Research Center for Law and Economy of China. She is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University and a winner of the 2020 Chinese-Polish Translation Prize.

Marian Fila is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. Before coming to China, he graduated from King’s College London with a degree in International Development and was a visiting student at Keio, Yonsei, Hong Kong and Taiwan universities.