08 Nov 2017
Will Trump Be Able To Tweet From Behind The Great Firewall Of China?
By Fergus Ryan
When U.S. President Donald Trump's Twitter account was deactivated by a rogue Twitter employee on their last day of work last week, his detractors breathed a sigh of relief.
The reprieve lasted only 11 minutes until the account was reinstated. But after the Twitterer-In-Chief flies from Seoul to Beijing today, his critics may have two whole days to enjoy his absence from the platform while he's in the middle kingdom.
Trump, usually a fan of walls, may come up against one he won't like in China -- the 'Great Firewall' of online censorship that blocks websites like Twitter, Facebook and Google.
If Trump does manage to keep up his Twitter habit, it will most likely be through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN). For ordinary Chinese citizens, getting access to VPNs has become harder. Beijing has been ramping up efforts this year to shut down VPNs, even pressuring American tech giant Apple to remove them from its app store in China.
Asked whether the U.S. President will be able to tweet while on Chinese soil, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zheng Zeguang told reporters: "How President Trump communicates with the outside is not something you need to worry about".
But it might be something the Chinese authorities need to worry about. After all, if the U.S. President can't get his Twitter fix, he might be tempted to open a Weibo account. Many users of the Twitter-like Chinese micro-blogging service are certainly clamoring for him to sign up. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined ahead of his China visit in spring 2015 and now boasts more than 185 thousand followers on the platform.
Trump needs only to ask his daughter Ivanka about how to use the service. Her own Weibo account gained a huge following before she disabled it in 2014 (her posts are still archived here). Even without a continued personal presence on the platform, Ivanka's jewelry store remains on the site, though it hasn't posted since early 2015. Ivanka still has a sizable following on the platform where her admirers have set up an account called 'Goddess Ivanka Trump' to honour her.
Despite his seemingly strong anti-China positions (on trade issues, in particular) the U.S. President enjoys a great deal of support on the platform. Many Chinese people preferred candidate Trump over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton who was seen as particularly hawkish, and in favour of a pivot to China which they saw as an attempt to contain their country.
Even as President, many Chinese Weibo users have expressed their admiration for his disdain for so-called 'political-correctness' and have cheered on his contempt for liberal values.
Trump's denunciation of NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem went viral on Weibo in October, with the vast majority of upvoted comments on the video in support of his stance.
"The biggest appeal of Trump is his frankness", read the top comment on a post about the video.
"For those who refuse to stand during the national anthem, who are contemptuous of the state, they deserve to be fired, even put into prison", read the second most-liked comment.
Weibo was for a brief period (from around 2009 to 2011) filled with vibrant debate, but its most prominent liberal voices have now largely been brought to heel by government censors.
A recent study by Berlin-based think tank MERICS showed that while there is a plurality of views to be found online in China, the party-state has "taken drastic measures to suppress ideas it considers hostile".
Among those new measures are new regulations that crack down harshly on group chats, putting the onus on group admins to police their friends' conversations or face punishment.
Just last week, China's cyberspace authority said it will create a database of online news practitioners, a blacklist of 'fake news' platforms and a mechanism for users to report fake articles.
Perhaps Mr. Trump won't be signing up to Weibo after all.