China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who garnered a popular following within China and a more controversial reputation abroad for often hawkish public statements on foreign policy matters, has been posted as the second-ranked official in the country’s Border Affairs Department.
The Foreign Ministry’s website on Monday no longer listed Mr. Zhao as a spokesperson, and showed him as the first-ranked of the three Deputy Director Generals of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, which deals with border issues including the India-China boundary dispute. The head of the department, Hong Liang, is regularly involved in consultations with Indian diplomats through the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China border affairs, which has met more frequently in the wake of the 2020 Line of Actual Control (LAC) crisis triggered by the Chinese military’s transgressions.
Mr. Zhao’s appointment was widely seen by observers as a lateral move at best. Some analysts suggested he had effectively been sidelined, as while he still holds the same rank as DDG, which he also held in the Information Department, he has now moved to a far less high-profile post.
The move will certainly shift Mr. Zhao out of the public spotlight, which he came to enjoy, described in one magazine profile as “the man behind China’s aggressive new voice”.
That image won him fans in China. On Weibo, the Twitter equivalent in China, he was among the most followed Chinese officials, with 7.7 million followers. He was also among the most followed Chinese officials on Twitter – a website banned in China but one Mr. Zhao actively used, posting more than 72,000 tweets – with 1.7 million followers.
It was his Twitter presence that caused most controversy, including tweets where he suggested the COVID-19 pandemic originated in an American lab and shared a mock-up image appearing to show an Australian soldier about to cut the throat of an Afghan child. That tweet was described by then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as “repugnant” and led to Canberra demanding an apology.
Mr. Zhao, who in his new capacity will be dealing more closely with India, specifically on the border issue, spent an earlier stint in Islamabad, during which he went by the name of “Muhammad Zhao”, and as spokesperson, he often spoke glowingly of China-Pakistan relations.