The US Embassy in Beijing has apologized after a social media post meant to herald the removal of some pandemic barriers between the two countries sparked a fierce backlash after it was interpreted as comparing Chinese students to dogs.

In a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Wednesday, the embassy’s visa section invited Chinese students to resume applying for US visas.

It marked a relaxation of restrictions after former President Donald Trump barred most non-US citizens from entering China following the outbreak of Covid-19.

“Spring has arrived, and the flowers are in full bloom. According to Reuters, the Chinese-language post asked, “Are you like this dog who can’t wait to go out and play?” It was accompanied by a photograph of a small dog attempting to escape over the top of a gate.

Weibo users were outraged, with many believing that the post compared Chinese students to desperate puppies.

“Dogs in American culture have mostly positive connotations, but in Chinese culture and idioms, they have mostly negative connotations,” one user wrote.

The post was later removed, and the embassy apologized.

“”The aforementioned social media post was intended to be lighthearted and humorous. We took it down right away when we realized it wasn’t being received in the spirit we intended,” an embassy spokesperson said.

“We have the highest regard for all Chinese people, including Chinese students,” the spokesperson continued. “We sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended. That was not our intention at all.” China is the most common source of international students in the United States.

According to the International Education Exchange, 372,000 Chinese students accounted for 35% of international students in the 2019-20 school year, nearly twice as many as students from India. However, tensions between Washington and Beijing have risen in recent years.

And Chinese internet users, who are frequently inflamed and amplified by the Communist Party’s propaganda efforts, have repeatedly made headlines for their outraged investigations into anti-China actions.

“Small missteps like this tweet can quickly be read as part of a systemic disregard for China’s place in the world today,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Centre, a research organization in the Netherlands, adding that the backlash could stem from Chinese fears that the United States is out to prevent China from emerging as a great power.

When the Trump administration issued a travel ban on arrivals from China in January 2020, it enraged Chinese authorities, and he went on to harshly criticize Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. When the Biden administration announced last month that it would lift the ban, Beijing hailed it as a “positive step.”

According to Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, while the US embassy had no malicious intent in publishing the post, it was careless not to anticipate that some would take offense at being compared to dogs. “Anything that seems to imply that the Chinese people are not being treated with absolute respect is going to be seen as offensive,” he said.

Tsang added that Chinese “netizens” have recently become more sensitive, in part due to tensions with the United States, and in part because nationalism in China has been “put on steroids” under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.

“Xi Jinping is actually appealing to people all over China not to stand for anything that could be perceived as disrespectful to China,” Tsang explained.  “The Chinese government has weaponized everyone and everything to support the Communist Party and the party-led foreign policy. Why would they not weaponize those online platforms, too?”