Argentina's Kirchner sparks row after China accent gibes

Benjamin Haas
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Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner (C) waves as Chinese President Xi Jinping accompanies her during the welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on February 4, 2015

Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner (C) waves as Chinese President Xi Jinping accompanies her during the welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on February 4, 2015 (AFP Photo/Goh Chai Hin)

Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner was assailed at home and abroad Thursday after an undiplomatic tweet during a state visit to China, in which she seemingly poked fun at Asian difficulties pronouncing the letters L and R.

Kirchner, on a mission to China to expand trade and political ties, tweeted in Spanish on the number of people attending one of her events in Beijing, asking: "Are they all with La Campola?"

She was referring to La Campora, her party's youth organisation, led by her son.

"Or, are they only there for the lice (rice) and petloleum (petroleum)?" she added.

It was a play on a political joke from home: Kirchner's detractors say that her supporters only attend party events so they can get a free sandwich and a soda.

After the tweets triggered criticism and accusations of racism, she followed up with another saying: "Sorry. You know what? There is too, too much craziness and absurdity, only humour can get you through it."

The Argentine president is already under the spotlight at home after the suspicious death of a prosecutor.

Her tweet was prominently covered in Argentine and international media, with one reader of the Buenos Aires daily La Nacion describing her comment as more teenage than presidential, adding: "It's really unpleasant to see how our president behaves."

Posters on Chinese social media sites were similarly disdainful. "How about you say two sentences in Chinese so I can hear your pronunciation?" asked one.

Another user on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service, added: "Amazing she has the courage to beg for investment while at the same time ridiculing Chinese people."

But China's government-run news outlets carried no mention of the gaffe or commented on its diplomatic implications, and foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to comment Thursday.

- Billions in investment -

Cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich defended Kirchner, saying the jibe was a "sign of friendship" and an "expression of affection and a recognition of our relationship with the most powerful economy in the world".

Some try to "minimize the impact and the strategic importance of agreements with China with a tendentious interpretation of (the president's) tweets," he told a media conference in Buenos Aires.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Argentina in July, when the two countries announced plans for China to invest $7 billion in industries including hydroelectric power, shipbuilding, railways and a deal to help Argentina build its fourth nuclear plant.

China will contribute $4.4 billion towards the construction of two hydroelectric dams in Argentina's southern Santa Cruz province, and put $2.1 billion into rail transport.

Xi is trying to build closer ties with Latin America and recently hosted China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) in Beijing, eyeing a region that has traditionally been Washington's backyard.

Twitter has been banned in mainland China since 2009, over fears it could be used to organise protests, with Chinese using home-grown microblogging platforms that strictly adhere to government censorship orders.

Facebook, YouTube and Google are also inaccessible from within China, which uses a system dubbed the Great Firewall to filter what content is allowed in.

Kirchner, 61, Argentina's first elected female president, is a lawyer and former lawmaker who succeeded her husband, the late president Nestor Kirchner.

She met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday, with neither referring to the gaffe while reporters were present.

Kirchner walked without assistance, a boot on her fractured ankle, and thanked Li for his welcome, saying: "It's a warmth I've felt since the moment I set foot here, from both the highest authorities but also the people of China."