Continuing a weeks-long trend, Afghanistan dominated the outputs of Russian state media last week, with the country registering as the second or third most-mentioned country in videos, tweets, and articles posted by state media accounts and outlets. As with past weeks, coverage largely amplified criticism of the West’s role in the country from RT’s usual Western critics, as well as commentary from President Putin, who commented that the “West created [the] mess in Afghanistan, now the whole world must deal with consequences.” But coverage was also critical of the Taliban, with several articles and videos highlighting the regime’s suppression of women’s rights and brutal crackdowns against journalists. At the same time, RT and its editor-in-chief celebrated the Taliban’s meme-making abilities and lauded their penchant for trolling the United States—a reference to the group’s plan to officially announce the formation of their new government on September 11. As with most international media outlets, state media devoted significant coverage to the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Besides straight news retrospectives, coverage focused on predictable criticism of U.S. foreign policy, including civilian deaths in the U.S.-led war on terror. Russian state media also continued to attack President Biden on a number of fronts, with the overwhelming majority of content posted last week about the president coded as negative. This included significant amplification of former president Trump’s criticism of Biden (along with Trump’s claim that he could knock Biden out in a boxing match), videos devoted to Biden’s “plummeting” approval ratings, coverage of college football fans chanting anti-Biden slogans, pieces suggesting that Biden’s staff are shielding him from the press/public, and reporting on a Florida restaurant that has seen a surge in business after banning supporters of the president. Russian state media also devoted significant attention to China this week—echoing Beijing’s talking points about naming conventions related to Taiwan, its influence in Afghanistan, and its social policies being more attractive than those offered in the West. While Belarus was not a prominent topic in state media outputs, Chinese diplomats last week provided significant coverage of the country (it was the third most mentioned country after Russia and the United States). This coincided with the joint announcement from Presidents Putin and Lukashenko that Russia and Belarus plan to develop a Union State, as well as the Zapad 2021 military exercises being conducted by the two countries. Finally, RT published a video and posted several tweets promoting the idea of a possible Frexit (French exit from the European Union), perhaps a harbinger of things to come with France heading into an election year in 2022.
Last week, Chinese diplomats and state media continued to use the situation in Afghanistan to highlight the supposed differences between U.S. and Chinese foreign policies. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian summed up China’s view of the situation by tweeting that “the graveyard of EMPIRES” had now turned “WAR MACHINES” into “swings and toys”—a reference to the Taliban’s takeover of U.S. military equipment. Zhao’s colleague Hua Chunying highlighted the killing of civilians in an August 29 U.S. drone strike, while China Daily claimed that the devastation inflicted upon Afghanistan by the United States “can be observed from 500 kilometers away in space.” These narratives were also prominent in China’s coverage of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Zhao used the occasion to hammer the United States over its supposed culpability over “the Afghan issue.” CGTN and the Global Times illustrated the same point with infographics showing how many people have been killed during the war on terror. The head of China Daily’s EU bureau similarly called on the United States to “learn lessons” after “tens (if not hundreds) of thousands innocent people perished during US wars,” and the Global Times framed the entire post-9/11 era as “not just a military defeat but a defeat of Western values.” In contrast, diplomats and state media consistently presented China as a proponent of peaceful multilateralism, as well as a provider of economic aid and prosperity. China also continued to position itself as a key player in Afghanistan moving forward; China was the third most-mentioned country in tweets about Afghanistan last week (after Afghanistan and the United States). China’s earlier tepid support for the Taliban also seemed less equivocal, as Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin explained that China’s requirement that the new Afghan government be “open and inclusive” consisted mainly of ensuring that the Taliban “broadly solicit the opinions of all ethnic groups and factions.” Outside of Afghanistan, Taiwan also received significant attention last week. Last Thursday, Zhao reacted angrily to a statement by Japan’s Deputy Defense Minister highlighting the proximity of Japan and Taiwan. The Chinese ambassador to ASEAN was among those who shared Zhao’s remarks about “Japan’s militarism” and “historical responsibilities.” On Friday, following Biden’s phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Zhao insisted again on the fact that Taiwan was “the most important and most sensitive issue in China-US relations.” His comments were echoed by diplomats and state media alike. Continuing the theme of the decline of the United States, a viral video showing decrepit, drug-infested Philadelphia streets was the centerpiece of two highly engaged-with tweets by CGTN affiliate T-House, as well as by the Global Times editor-in-chief. A Xinhua reporter raised similar issues about the state of U.S. society in response to a New York Times piece about actor Michael K. Williams’ death. Again in direct contrast, the most viewed Chinese state media video on YouTube last week featured a Russian reporter reminiscing a 2013 interview with Xi, insisting on “the depth of his knowledge,” “strong decision-making and critical thinking skills,” as well as the “great wisdom in his eyes.” In the aftermath of last week’s coup in Guinea, the bulk of Chinese coverage was devoted to the state of the countries’ resources and Chinese-funded projects. However, the Global Times and its editor-in-chief found ways to pin the unrest on the United States and its allies. Finally, in his Monday press conference last week, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin quoted Swiss epidemiologist Christian Althaus as lauding China’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak in late 2019. A quick Google search suggests that Althaus exists and has indeed pronounced such words, a marked improvement over Chinese officials’ previous attempt at quoting “Wilson Edwards,” whose quotes were hastily taken down from Chinese state media sites after the Swiss embassy in Beijing explained that there was no Swiss citizen with that name.
Last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted praise for two Iranian warships that had spent the past several months voyaging around the Cape of Good Hope and up to the Baltic Sea to participate in a naval parade in St. Petersburg. The ships reached Iran this week after making the return trip via the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal. These ships, which included a converted tanker, had initially been a source of concern for U.S. officials who feared they might be bound for Venezuela. The voyage represents one of the farthest ever for the Iranian navy, and government statements and press coverage emphasized the technical sophistication that the “epic Atlantic voyage” demanded. Press TV reported that a witness for the prosecution in former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial was killed in a plane crash, though the piece did not advance any conspiracy theories suggesting that the crash was anything other than accidental. Another Press TV story blasted Israeli authorities for the slow progress of getting vaccines to Palestinians and for shipping expired vaccines to the West Bank. In U.S.-related news, Iranian media ran at least two stories on a video they implied showed President Biden getting distracted during remarks by First Lady Jill Biden, calling it an “awkward moment” and “disrespectful.” Press TV also held a “debate” on whether the United States remains a superpower given the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan. In a since deleted tweet, they also seemed to compare the situation on Iran’s border with Afghanistan to that of the U.S. border with Mexico. Finally, Iranian press reported on comments from Nancy Pelosi expressing concern for a Saudi activist sentenced to 20 years in prison for comments he made on Twitter.
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