Appointment of new Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan triggers mixed responses online
Some framed the event as a sign of recognition from a global superpower, while others criticised the warm reception provided by the Taliban.
2 Oct 2023
On September 13, 2023, the Taliban’s deputy spokesman Bilal Karimi, announced the appointment of a new ambassador from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The announcement followed a formal ceremony in Kabul, where Zhao Sheng, the new ambassador, met the Acting Prime Minister of Afghanistan, Mohammad Hasan Akhund.
In his remarks, Zhao stated that the PRC respects Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Zhao also praised the improved security and economic progress since the group took power in 2021, adding that China would never interfere with Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
A complex relationship
The relationship between the PRC and the Taliban remains complex. China has been more willing than most countries to be seen engaging with the Taliban on potential investments, and the Taliban is keen to highlight China’s engagement as a symbol of a powerful nation recognising their authority.
China has, however, stalled on committing significant human or financial resources to projects, wary of security risks. In August, Bloomberg reported that the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei had reached "verbal agreement" with the Taliban about a contract to install a surveillance system across Afghanistan, citing a person allegedly familiar with the discussions. Huawei pushed back on these claims, however, and in September told Reuters that "no plan was discussed" during the meeting.
Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) has attacked the bilateral relationship between the Afghan Taliban and China in its propaganda, as well as in physical attacks on Chinese interests, ostensibly due to China’s treatment of Uighurs.
Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the new ambassador was welcomed and amplified by the pro-Taliban online community, however, with over 8,000 mentions of ‘چین' (China) between August 22 and September 20, including a sharp peak around the ambassador’s appointment.
Among the replies to official posts announcing the new ambassador, pro-Taliban users suggested the appointment shows PRC supports the policies of Afghanistan, while some said it amounted to a formal recognition of the Taliban regime.
The replies, however, also showed discontent from other Afghan-based groups. Saifullah Mustanir, Head of Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir Wilayah Afghanistan, criticisedthe warm welcome, commenting “What will you say to Allah about this kind of reception of the ambassador of the merciless butcher!? […] Right now, they have imprisoned millions of Uyghur Muslims in camps and continued to oppress, brutalize and attack them in order to leave Islam”. His statement was accompanied by a photo of the ambassador shaking hands with the Acting Prime Minister alongside a 2017 image of Uighurs detained in Xinjiang. His post received 114 reposts and almost 24k views. Other individual users also criticised the Taliban for engaging with ‘infidels’.
ISKP attack relationship in propaganda
The ISKP-linked Al Azaim Media responded to the appointment with a 145-page publication entitled “Shariah Assessment of Friendship and Diplomatic Relations with Infidels Deserving to Be Fought With”, attacking the Taliban for their relationship with China and their welcoming of the new ambassador. Articles included “The Occupation of East Turkestan by China” and “The Horrors of the friends of the Taliban [China] with the People of East Turkestan”.
The contrasting responses to the ambassador’s appointment from different communities highlights the difficult balancing act the Taliban are faced with when it comes to relations with China. The Taliban is naturally keen to profile relations with China as an example of ties – and therefore de-facto recognition – with a major superpower.
China is also a very real and practical potential source of investment and economic development in Afghanistan, at a time when there are relatively few interested parties. In trumpeting the relationship, however, the Taliban risk being outflanked and attacked by more fundamental and extreme elements for compromising and building relations with a state known for its poor treatment of Uighurs.