Reuters –Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, on a tour of China to strengthen ties as the economy teeters on the brink of a recession, appeared to commit a diplomatic blunder on Wednesday by poking fun at how the Chinese speak.
While Fernandez's remark on Twitter that the Chinese pronounce the letter 'r' as an 'l' will be taken by her supporters as a light-hearted joke typical of her folksy style on social media, she may have offended her hosts.
In her message, Fernandez suggested that the Chinese struggled to pronounce "rice", "petroleum" and "Campora," the Spanish name given to the youth wing of her political party.
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"More than 1,000 participants at the event ... Are they all from the Campola and in it only for the lice and petloleum?" Fernandez tweeted.
Argentina has turned to China for loans to bolster its thin foreign reserves and financing for energy and rail projects as it grapples with another debt default and a stagnating economy.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei repeatedly declined to comment on the matter at a regular press briefing on Thursday. But Chinese Internet users were quick to lambast the president for her breach of etiquette.
"China has Chinese. It's a pity your country doesn't even have its own language," one person wrote on China's Twitter-like microblog, Weibo.
"President Fernandez, how much money did you borrow on your trip to China? Can you pay it back on time?" asked another.
Within minutes of her comments, '#Campola' was trending on Twitter in Argentina, with many voicing dismay and heaping scorn on the president.
"@CFKArgentina Without a doubt, she's gone to pasture," tweeted one user.
Fernandez's erratic behavior has been scrutinized in past weeks, as she came under fire from political opponents for her handling of the death of a state prosecutor under mysterious circumstances, just days after he accused her plotting to stymie his investigation into a 1994 bomb attack.
Alberto Nisman, found dead last month with a bullet to the head, had drafted a request for Fernandez be arrested for her alleged meddling. The request was left out of his final submission.
A survey by pollster Carlos Fara and Associates published on Wednesday showed the two-term leader's approval rating falling 7 percentage points to 39 percent since November in the capital Buenos Aires and neighboring Buenos Aires province.
Argentines vote for a new leader in October. Fernandez is barred constitutionally from running.
"She makes a joke, as would any citizen," said Fara. "Beyond whether you think they're appropriate for a president, they won't have much impact at home or abroad."