BEIJING – They accuse each other of inciting violence. They denounce each other as corrupt. They call each other terrorists.
As tensions between the United States and Iran persist after the US assassination of a high-ranking Iranian general this month, the two countries are fighting a heated battle in an unlikely forum: the Chinese internet.
The embassies of the United States and Iran in Beijing have published a series of barbed publications in recent days on Weibo, a popular Chinese social networking site, attacking each other in Chinese and in view of the hundreds of millions of Internet users of the country.
The US Embassy accused Iran of “leaving bloodstains everywhere.” The Iranian embassy denounced the assassination of General Qassim Suleimani on January 3 and promised to seek the end of the “evil forces of the United States in Western Asia.”
The battle has captivated people in China, where diplomatic disputes rarely enter public opinion and the government often censures policy publications.
Trolling comes at a time when the United States is pressuring US technology companies to censor the content of groups that the government has identified as terrorist organizations. Reports have emerged that Facebook, for example, is censoring some pro-Iran posts, even on Instagram. The company said in a statement that it was required to review some publications to comply with US sanctions.
Iran, meanwhile, has tried for years to hinder the flow of information from the West in general, blocking Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.
The Chinese media have covered the skirmish out of breath, describing Weibo as the “new battlefield “between the two countries. Until Thursday, a hashtag referring to the” Weibo fight “had been seen more than 1.5 million times.
The Chinese authorities operate one of the most aggressive censorship systems in the world, and routinely delete reports, comments and publications on the Internet that are considered politically sensitive or subversive. It is known that the publications of foreign diplomats have been censored, especially on issues such as North Korea or human rights.
But so far the government has allowed the war of words between the United States and Iran to continue, perhaps because it diverts attention from problems in China, analysts said.
“Any issue that provides a distraction from internal problems in China is beneficial to Beijing,” said Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who has He studied China’s censorship of messages from foreign embassies. “It is simply a case in which Beijing sees few disadvantages for itself such as Iran and the US dispute.”
Many Chinese internet users have taken the opportunity to criticize the United States as an “imperialist” power, echoing a favorite propaganda issue in Beijing. Others praised Weibo for allowing the discussion to be published, reacting to the news that Facebook had censored some posts.
The US embassy, which has more than 2.6 million followers in Weibo, said it welcomed the debate.
“We look forward to critical discussion and debate, which could include both support and criticism of US policy,” the embassy said in a statement, describing its approach to social networks in China.
The Iranian embassy, with more than 300,000 followers, did not respond to a request for comment.
China and Iran have sought closer relations in recent years, especially because US sanctions have increased economic pressure on Tehran.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, visited Beijing at the end of December, a few days before the general’s murder, to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. At the meeting, Mr. Wang criticized the “harassment practices” abroad, a comment that was considered addressed to the United States.
In its Weibo publications, the Iranian embassy appealed to Chinese internet users, thanking them for their support and even suggesting they visit Iran for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday (“security is not a problem,” the embassy wrote) .
According to experts, Iran could be particularly anxious to get attention and validation from the Chinese public.
“China has provided Iran with very important economic and political lifelines in recent years when US sanctions have drowned that country,” said Hongying Wang, associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
The positive responses of Chinese commentators could help “boost the legitimacy of the Iranian government in the eyes of its own people,” he added.
Albee Zhang contributed to the investigation.