By Hessam Ghanatir
April 08, 2020
Chang Hua, the Chinese Ambassador to Iran, has become a subject of controversy and occasional satire on social media. After his public disagreement with Iran’s health ministry spokesman, Kianoush Jahanpour, some have demanded that Chang Hua be expelled from Iran – while others loyal to the Iranian regime have supported him in droves.
In fact, the dispute goes back at least 20 years. At the end of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, radical conservatives including the Islamic Coalition Party began to establish friendly relations with the Chinese Communist Party while a number of principalist political activists championed adopted the Chinese development model for Iran [Persian link].
In a revealing article penned in 2002, Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Kayhan – who would later become President Ahmadinejad’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance – expressed his support for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. The massacre had been “a human tragedy”, he wrote, “but since this decisive action cut off foreigners’ interference in the fate of more than a billion Chinese, it must be seen as a bitter medicine that had to be tolerated because the bitterness was justified by the subsequent healing.” [Persian link].
The Islamic Republic’s support for the Chinese government has gone so so far that when Uighur Muslims were massacred in Xinjiang Province in 2009, Tehran remained silent . The diplomatic silence has persisted to this day despite the ongoing repression of a religious and ethnic minority.
In the aftermath of Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani was delivering a sermon at Friday Prayers in Tehran, protesters cried out “Death to China” and “the Russian embassy is a nest of spies.”
Critics in the digital sphere have now argued that, despite its motto of “Neither the East, nor the West”, the Islamic Republic is practically paying ransom to China and Russia and in turn, these two countries are treating Iran as a colonial-style possession.
The Ambassador and the Spokesman: A Twitter War
The war of words began on Sunday, April 5 when Kianoush Jahanpour, the Iranian health ministry’s spokesman, questioned Chinese statistics on coronavirus at a press conference and in a tweet. Jahanpour claimed figures published by China had led most of the world to believe that the coronavirus was no more serious influenza and the number of fatalities would be low. It seemed, he said, that China has played a “cruel joke” on the world.
“Scientific issues cannot and must not be mixed with politics,” he tweeted. “Based on the epidemiological information and reports by Chinese researchers, all academic circles in the world concluded that the novel coronavirus was, at least, less dangerous than type A of influenza. But today, the datas show otherwise and we have more confidence in our own findings.”
Dr Minoo Mohraz, a member of Iran’s National Coronavirus Taskforce, added that the coronavirus had behaved in a way that was contrary to what China had suggested. There were two possibilities, she said: either the virus had mutated or China had failed to provide adequate information.
Chang Hua, the Chinese ambassador, took to twitter to deliver a withering response. “China’s Health Ministry holds a news conference every day,” he wrote in English. “I suggest that they should follow these press conferences carefully in order to draw conclusions.”
In response, Jahanpour tweeted that Iran’s Health Ministry also holds a daily press conference. These events, he said, “are almost unique and the honorable ambassadors and directors of the media in all countries, especially in friendly ones, can benefit from them.”
In another tweet, this time in Persian, the Chinese ambassador then directly addressed Jahanpour. “Dear Sir, I would hope you respect the facts and the great efforts by the Chinese people,” he wrote. Many of those social media found the tone of this tweet insulting.
Abbas Mousavi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, whom the Chinese ambassador had called “a very old friend” a few days earlier in a tweet, then entered the fray in support of China. “The government and the people of China lead the way in suppressing coronavirus and generously aiding countries across the globe,” he tweeted. “Chinese bravery, dedication and professionalism in COVID-19 containment deserves acknowledgment. Iran has always been thankful to China in these trying times.”
This ongoing cyber-battle prompted many commentators to call for the dismissal of the health ministry’s spokesman. On the other side, critics responded by calling the regime “Chinollahi” (à la “Hezbollahi”) and wrote that Iran had become a “Chinese colony.”
Passenger Flights to China
Another factor stoking the tension was the ongoing quarrel over Mahan Airlines flights between Iran and China. After the coronavirus outbreak in China, Iranian officials sought to consolidate their friendship with China in various ways, including sending humanitarian aid and through the continuation of Mahan Air flights to China.
During this period, Chang Hua, who had been appointed ambassador to Iran approximately six months earlier, increased his Twitter activities considerably. He tweeted several times in Persian and discussed his consultations with Iranian officials and media. On February 2, in an interview with Tasnim News Agency, an affiliate of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC], he asked Iranian officials not to impose too many restrictions on Chinese travelers entering Iran [Persian link]. On the same day, he tweeted photos of his meeting with Hamid Arabnejad, CEO of Mahan Air, and noted that the airline wanted to continue its co-operation with China.
Chang Hua also published a letter by the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, who had written: “Not a moment goes by that I do not think about you and the innocent Chinese children.”
The Chinese Propaganda Onslaught
After the coronavirus outbreak was officially acknowledged in Iran, the Chinese ambassador’s Twitter activity went up a gear again. “Today, on behalf of the Chinese embassy in Iran, I donated 250 thousand masks to Iran,” he tweeted on February 25. “We will send more aid to Iran in the future. Be strong, Iran!”
In his tweets, Chang Hua also regularly highlighted Chinese donations to Iran and other countries, made by, among others, CEOs of pharmaceutical companies and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade.
Hua has attempted to reply to tweets in Persian and delivered his speeches in Persian when Chinese donations arrived in Iran. The Persian-language services of Chinese media have also become more active and are producing educational programs in this language. In these videos, Chinese women cover their arms up with long sleeves, apparently to conform to the conservative standards of Iranian media. In addition to educational tools and news about coronavirus, Chang Hua also re-posts entertaining videos and pictures of Iranian students learning Chinese or cooking Chinese food.
Not merely in Iran but across the world, China has attempted to press the coronavirus crisis into service as a propaganda tool, spending billions of dollars on launching media outlets in various languages to convey its message to the world. Chinese diplomats have also joined this effort by engaging in a fledgling “Twitter diplomacy”, as evidenced by the posts of Chang Hua.
On Monday, April 6, apparently under pressure from higher-ups, Jahangiri backtracked from his earlier statements about China. In a news conference, he said that he had merely been commenting on how China’s epidemiological assessment of coronavirus was not shared with Iran. This was followed up with a tweet: “The support offered by China to the Iranian people in these trying times is unforgettable.”