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Trump in China: The Twitter President meets the Great Firewall

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By James Griffiths CNN

HONG KONG (CNN) -- In his first and only known social media post, Chinese President Xi Jinping wished soldiers of the People's Liberation Army happy new year and encouraged them to "make new and greater contributions to the realization of the Chinese dream."

US President Donald Trump used his first tweet to encourage readers to watch him on "Late Night with David Letterman."

Since then, Trump has tweeted more than 36,000 times. Xi hasn't used Weibo, China's biggest social media platform and its answer to Twitter again, and the original post has been deleted.

As Trump visits China for the first time, the communication styles of the two leaders could not be more different: one carefully controlled and choreographed, the other shooting off quick reactions to everything and anything on a social network banned in China.

"Trump's style is not edited, not vetted and sometimes unhinged," said Charlie Smith, a Chinese anti-censorship activist and founder of GreatFire.org.

"I don't think there is a leader more the opposite of this style than Xi Jinping."

Transparency and total control

It's not just Trump's propensity to tweet that sets his communication style apart from Xi. "They are polar opposites in many ways," said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, a US-based think tank.

Since the rise of social media, politicians in the US have worked to make themselves more accessible, and no one emphasizes this personal connection like Trump, who leaves readers in no doubt they're getting his unfiltered thoughts on Twitter.

A former tabloid mainstay and source, Trump has also shared a plethora of details about his personal life and opinions, on everything from his sex life to his concerns about actor Robert Pattison's romantic relationships.

By comparison, next to nothing is known about Xi the man beyond a few officially sanctioned details -- he has a daughter, he likes football, and he likes the films of Steven Spielberg (so does Trump).

This doesn't mean Chinese officials don't care how they come across, quite the opposite: since Xi assumed the presidency five years ago, the country's propaganda machine has been in overdrive promoting his authority, integrity, and personal prowess.

Fans of Xi seeking his insights can read his self-titled, 515 page tome on the "governance of China," or a multitude of books collecting quotations from the Chinese president on a variety of topics.

China has also sought to promote Xi as a "man of the people," with carefully choreographed visits to a steamed bun restaurant in Beijing and a rain sodden building site with his trousers rolled up and umbrella in hand. But this approach has hard limits, when a photo of Xi carrying his own umbrella began to be used in reference to Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, it was quickly blocked on the Chinese internet.

"Communication in China's political culture is scripted to the extreme, and we wouldn't ever expect to see truly spontaneous expressions from top leaders," said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

Propaganda push

Nowhere was this scripting more evident than during the recent National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which saw "Xi Jinping Thought" inserted into the country's constitution, an honor not granted to any living Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Following the announcement of a new party standing committee, the country's top body, most state-run newspapers carried a giant photo of Xi on the front page, above a wide shot of the other members.

As many pointed out, this was akin to presentations of Mao, and a break from previous years where members of the standing committee were featured prominently alongside the president.

New media has also been enlisted in this propaganda effort, with limited success.

A recent video from the official Xinhua news agency -- "Xi Jinping & China's ruling party in foreigners' eyes" -- featured on-the-street interviews in cities around the world.

All interviewees are unfailingly positive and complimentary about China's political system: of party cadres, a woman in Nigeria tells the camera "they have an unshakeable belief, and they have good morality."

On the streets of London, a man describes Xi as "measured, calm and considered with his judgment," adding "some of us in the West wish that some of our leaders were more like him."

The star of the video is Dylan Austin Walker, a Communist Party of the USA member who previously sang "China Dream and My Dream," an ode to one of Xi's favorite slogans, during a special National Day TV program aired by a Shanghai broadcaster.

Videos of foreigners praising China join a series of bizarre rap songs promoting topics like Xi's anti corruption campaign, and mobile games where users can offer virtual applause to government speeches.

State media have also been keen to embrace the very platforms banned in China -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter -- to help them get their message out around the world.

"Officials have tried to make their propaganda more appealing to ordinary people," said GreatFire's Smith. "But if there was ever a dictionary definition of 'putting lipstick on a pig,' then this would be it."

Cook, the Freedom House researcher, said the rap songs and other recent efforts have come in for considerable mockery on the Chinese internet, but measuring their true influence or popularity is difficult.

"Considering the high level of censorship in China and the growing risk of reprisals for those who criticize Xi, it's difficult to gauge how much of a gulf there is between the Party's message and ordinary people," she said.

Twitter president

Trump's visit to China will only serve to heighten the contrasts between him and Xi, even as he continues to heap praise on the Chinese leader.

Twitter is blocked by the Great Firewall of China, the world's most sophisticated system of internet censorship and control, but this is unlikely to hamper Trump, raising the prospect of him tweeting while in Beijing.

While security concerns have been raised about the US president's smartphone use, he will almost certainly be connecting to a US-based service provider, not a Chinese one, leaving him outside the firewall's reach.

He may also find something to appreciate in China's tight media controls -- especially when they don't affect him. Trump has condemned the US media (including CNN) for publishing "fake news" and treating him unfairly. By contrast, during a visit to China's largest broadcaster in 2016, journalists pledged allegiance to Xi and the Communist Party.

"If Trump does manage to tweet during his visit to China, I hope the President appreciates the fact that Twitter is blocked in the country and his access is a privilege," HKU's Bandurski said.

Smith said Trump tweeting about China during his visit could embarrass Xi and force state media to acknowledge the existence of the Great Fire Wall, something it is normally loath to do. He predicted the US President would stay off Twitter in Beijing.

"We may see him tweet before he gets off Air Force One and once he gets back on it," he said. "But who knows, 'Fox & Friends' will be on in prime time, China-time so he might not be able to hold back."

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