The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has apologized after a social media post meant to herald the lifting of some pandemic barriers between the two countries instead set off a fierce backlash after it was seen as likening Chinese students to dogs.
The embassy’s visa section invited Chinese students to resume applying for U.S. visas Wednesday in a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.
It marked an easing of restrictions after former President Donald Trump prohibited most non-U.S citizens in China from entering the country after the outbreak of Covid-19.
“Spring has come and the flowers are in bloom. Are you like this dog who can’t wait to go out and play?” said the Chinese-language post, according to Reuters. It was accompanied by an image of a small dog trying to escape over the top of a gate.
Weibo users reacted angrily, with many feeling that the post likened Chinese students to desperate puppies.
“Dogs in American culture basically have positive meanings, but in Chinese culture and idioms, they are mostly negative,” one user wrote, according to Reuters.
The Global Times, an English-language newspaper run by the Communist Party's People's Daily, also cited users as saying that the post was "blatant racism."
The post was later deleted and the embassy issued an apology.
“"The social media post in question was meant to be lighthearted and humorous. We took it down immediately when we saw it was not received in the spirit we intended,” said an embassy spokesperson.
“We have the utmost respect for all Chinese people, certainly including Chinese students,” the spokesperson added. “We apologize if anyone was offended. That was certainly not our intention.”
China is the largest source of international students in the U.S.
Around 372,000 Chinese accounted for 35 percent of international students in the 2019-20 school year, according to the International Education Exchange, nearly twice as many as the second-highest, students from India.
But tensions between Washington and Beijing have intensified in recent years.
And Chinese internet users, often inflamed and amplified by the Communist Party’s propaganda efforts, have repeatedly made headlines for their angry interventions against actions they perceive to be anti-China.
“Small missteps like this tweet can quickly be read as part of a systemic disregard for China’s place in the world today,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Centre, a research organization in the Netherlands, adding that the backlash could stem from Chinese wariness that the U.S. was out to prevent its emergence as a great power.
The Trump administration provoked the ire of Chinese authorities when it issued a travel ban on arrivals from the country in January 2020, and went on to harshly criticize Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. When the Biden administration announced it was easing the ban last month, Beijing welcomed the news as “a positive step.”
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said that although he believed the U.S. embassy had no malicious intent in publishing the post, it was careless not to anticipate that some would take offense at seemingly being compared with dogs.
“Anything that seems to imply that the Chinese people are not being treated with absolute respect is going to be seen as offensive,” he said.
Tsang added that Chinese "netizens" had a heightened sensitivity of late, in part because of tensions with the U.S., and in part because nationalism in China had been “put on steroids” under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
“Xi Jinping is actually appealing to people across China not to stand for anything that could be seen as disrespectful to China,” Tsang said.
“The Chinese government has weaponized everyone and everything to support the Communist Party and the party-led foreign policy. Why would they not weaponize those online platforms, too?”