State Media: Chinese Envoy Liking Footjob Tweet Requires ‘Major Cyber Governance Revolution’

Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming addresses the crowds in Trafalgar Square during celebrations for the Chinese Lunar New Year in central London on January 26, 2020. - The Chinese Lunar New Year on January 25 ushered in the beginning of the Year of the Rat and the beginning …
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

China’s state-run Global Times editorialized on Tuesday that a “major cyber governance revolution” is needed to counter evolving online threats.

Of course, the editorial did not portray China as the pre-eminent threat to global information security. Instead, it presented the great danger as impish pro-democracy forces using the Internet to undermine the authority of enlightened totalitarian governments like the one in Beijing.

It takes a good deal of cheek for a state-managed propaganda organ to complain about the freedom of information, or for the buzzing beehive of cyber-espionage in China to complain about anyone else corrupting the Internet. Usually, China fills its cybersecurity editorials with complaints about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaks of classified information in 2013 were the defining event of the Information Age in Beijing’s view, but the latest screed was provoked by a remarkably petty incident: the alleged hacking of Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming’s Twitter account.

The Global Times did not bother to explain this incident to their readers beyond dropping Liu’s name and asserting as fact that he was “maliciously hacked.” What actually happened is that Liu, who has a long history of punching the “like” button on some unusual tweets, clicked “like” on an X-rated foot fetish video.

This was especially amusing because Liu is a top Chinese diplomat and a major Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hardliner, relentlessly defending China’s worst human rights offenses as the voice of stern authoritarianism. Unfortunately for Liu, he seems to either fumble his smartphone a lot or have a vague grasp of what the “like” function on Twitter does, because the X-rated video was merely the latest in a long string of eyebrow-raising “likes” he has issued, as chronicled by the New York Times:

He has used Twitter to attack Adrian Zenz, a scholar who has researched the Xinjiang crackdown. He has accused external forces of fomenting the protest movement in Hong Kong last year. He has praised China’s coronavirus response and defended Huawei, the embattled Chinese tech company.

But from the time he joined the social media platform, the like function has proved particularly troublesome.

Soon after his account posted an introductory message in October (“Hello Everyone! I’m Liu Xiaoming…”) his account liked a reply that a Chinese ambassador wouldn’t normally approve: “Hail China dictatorship man! Hail totalitarianism!”

Controversy ensued in China when Liu “liked” the X-rated video, while the British tabloid press had a field day with foot puns. The Chinese embassy swiftly announced Liu’s account had been hacked and ostentatiously reported the incident to Twitter. The hackers thoughtfully deleted all but two of the “likes” issued by Liu’s account on their way out.

The Global Times doubled down by comparing Liu’s saucy foot flirtation with “the so-called Color Revolutions conducted by hegemonic countries with their domination of the internet in the early 21st century,” which is China’s standard dismissal of pro-democracy movements as the sinister creation of hostile foreign powers. 

Without a new global Internet standard friendly to Chinese authoritarianism, the article implied, places like Hong Kong could be one X-rated Tweet away from revolution:

The benign transformation of the global cyberspace governance order, which had previously been in a state of stagnation, may be able to back on track. This will happen if the main actors in the network space, especially the sovereign states, as well as operators of the main global cyber platforms can cooperate in a responsible way.

This process will certainly not be smooth, let alone spontaneous. On the whole, the abuse of cyber freedom by some cyber hegemonic forces and multiple standards based on their selfish interests have helped cultivate such irresponsibility in cyberspace. It has also overdrawn the basic trust of global netizens in the order of cyberspace. Such trust, to some extent, is a nonrenewable strategic resource.

Another challenge is to find a new way to carry out balanced cyberspace governance. This obviously requires a consideration of the needs of all sides: the endogenous needs of technology, the development characteristics of the digital economy, and the instinct of pluralistic subjects to improve well-being of human. People need solutions that truly embody broad consultation, joint contribution, shared benefits and collaboration with governance. This kind of solution was already expressed by Chinese leaders at the Second World Internet Conference in 2015, where they put forward a five-point initiative noting that the future and destiny of cyberspace should be in the hands of all countries through communication and cooperation.

The article concluded by touting China’s “Global Initiative on Data Security,” which is Beijing’s dictatorship-friendly alternative to the U.S. Clean Network Initiative. The Chinese are fond of portraying the U.S. proposal as a wanton smear of China because they are desperate to have a seat at the table when any global standards for cyberspace are drawn up. China’s critics compare this to foxes eager for some input into henhouse design.

Twitter accounts do get hacked on occasion, so it is always possible it happened to Liu, although no one has ever pulled off a regime-change operation by doing it. It seems likely that a band of hackers intent on fomenting a “color revolution” against a global superpower would do something a bit more spectacular than clicking “like” on a racy video and hoping people noticed.

The larger problem is that China’s cyberspace standards are not a matter of future conjecture. It has cybersecurity laws on the books right now, and they are far more intrusive and controlling than any free society would tolerate, including onerous burdens and security compromises forced upon foreign operations doing business in China. 

The Chinese are also keenly interested in setting global standards that would prevent regulatory actions or sanctions against enterprises linked to the Chinese state, such as Huawei. The Chinese regard other countries as “hegemonic” when they pursue their own national interests or insist China adhere to global standards for freedom of information and human rights, while insisting that China’s interests trump all other considerations. 

“The indulgence of hegemonism (or to let all countries resort to a patchwork of rules) is not the way to solve the problem. The world should work together to build a community of shared future for cyberspace, which will allow all to jointly promote the benign transformation with a new order of global governance,” concluded the Global Times — a state propaganda organ for the country that routinely uses economic leverage to force foreign companies to modify their websites to conform with Chinese speech codes.

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