It all started with a tweet where Hillary Clinton called Chinese president Xi Jinping “shameless” for co-hosting a UN summit on women’s rights given the country’s past record.
Such a comment would in theory anger the Chinese people, especially since Xi is still on U.S. soil for a high-profile state visit. But a closer look shows that a surprising number of Chinese people are not angry at Clinton, but the government's attempts to dismiss her criticism.
Let’s take a step back to unpack this a little.
It's not surprising that Clinton took issue with China co-hosting the summit. First of all, she’s made women’s rights a major part for her campaign. Second, the UN summit marks the 20th anniversary of a historic conference on women’s rights that Clinton attended in 1995. Third, China bashing is useful for winning votes.
Earlier this year, China detained five feminists for planning public campaigns to promote awareness for sexual harassment on International Women’s Rights Day. Clinton had tweeted about this, calling for their release. The feminists were released later but the incident became a major reference point in the growing conviction that China has tightened control over organized activism under Xi.
It makes perfect sense for Clinton to do this but her recent tweet could be taken as a deliberate insult and a sign of disrespect, which is the opposite of what Chinese want to see from the U.S. side during Xi’s visit. The BBC wrote an article with the headline, "China angered by Hillary Clinton tweet on women's rights," citing a strong-worded editorial in a state-owned hardline Chinese newspaper, the Global Times.
The editorial accused Clinton of making uncouth comments about China to gain votes from Trump.
"It looks like Hillary has panicked, her eyes have turned red…Despite her political acumen and demeanor as former secretary of state and senator, she has lowered herself to using the language of Trump and became a fierce big mouth,” the editorial read. The op-ed concluded that the comment has made Chinese people despise Clinton.
Another response (link in Chinese) came from Li Junhua, director of China’s Department of International Organizations and Conferences. He said it was up to the Chinese people, especially women, to judge the country’s development of women’s rights in the country.
On Weibo, the Twitter-like platform and a good gauge for public opinion, the topic has gained traction. One post reporting on the delegation’s response to Clinton’s comment generated thousands of comments. Dozens of news media outlets have reposted the response.
But what’s unusual is that both attempts to dismiss Clinton’s criticism have backfired.
The comments with the most “likes” are overwhelmingly critical—not of Clinton but of the attempts to dismiss her comment.
One of the greatest issues Weibo users have is that none of the Chinese news articles would even repeat Clinton’s comment in their responses. They’ve called it "distasteful," "rude," and "offensive" without once quoting the actual comment.
On top of that, Twitter is blocked in China. So technically, no one is supposed to see the tweet that supposedly made Chinese people despise Clinton.
“I dare you post her comment, the domestic media are so spineless that of course they think whatever others say is offensive…you are silenced so you won’t let others speak,” one of the most-liked comments read.
Many users wrote to demand greater information transparency, an explanation of which laws the feminists violated, and to point out the lack of progress in women’s rights. Judging by the number and popularity of the comments, the internet users calling Clinton "an old witch" and making outdated Monica Lewinsky jokes are in fact losing the argument.
Isabelle Niu is a digital video producer at Fusion.