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The Panda Plays: China’s Digital Public Diplomacy Tactics

The Asia 2021 Public Diplomacy Conference provided a detailed review of China’s emerging digital public diplomacy tactics. Using positive and constructive media to further their “waixuan” (external propaganda) goals; waixuan allows China to remake itself to a whole new audience. In this article, Aneesha from the IAS Gazette examines China’s public diplomacy operations on two social media platforms, Weibo and Twitter, to demonstrate this.

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Given today’s interconnected world, public diplomacy is the future for international relations. Individuals, academics, corporations, and civil society are increasingly initiating dialogue and interacting online on a variety of complicated cross-border challenges, exporting ideas, influencing attitudes, and developing solutions. Countries that make use of the internet’s expanding power to foster mutual trust, respect, and a shared future with others will gain an advantage.

Public Diplomacy

Existing research shows that public diplomacy actors are increasingly using social media to manage international public opinion, converting the sway they gain from favourable foreign public opinion into genuine international political results. Foreign actors’ interactions with non-state actors were previously confined by the screen or the written word. Now, state actors can influence overseas public opinion through digital public diplomacy without the usual constraints that come with traditional means of communication. The digital age has levelled the playing field, allowing for two-way communication across the divide. These influential stakeholders can engage in more in-depth conversations and relationships with regular folks thanks to social media.

Even knowing this, there is a paucity of literature and studies on public diplomacy as it is practised in Asia, despite the fact that it plays a critical role in peacebuilding. The Public Diplomacy in Asia 2021 conference aims to bridge this gap. During the event, Dr Zhao Alexandre Huang, Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Science, Gustave Eiffel University, France gave a comprehensive overview of the new Chinese digital public diplomacy practices.

Chinese Global Media Strategy 

According to Huang, China has built its own digital public diplomacy plan after recognizing the potential of this digital-led style of influence. The Chinese government announced a US$7 billion (S$9.5 billion) strategy in 2011 to build a global media footprint to project soft power throughout the world. Digital public diplomacy has opened up new possibilities and Xi Jinping has made public the government’s efforts to “enhance and innovate online propaganda” in order to better “guide public opinion on the Internet”.

At the core of Xi Jinping’s waixuan (external propaganda) efforts is the idea to “display a real, three-dimensional, and comprehensive China to the world”. As Huang states, “waixuan, especially in the digital era, has a chance of reinventing itself by creating a new image that can be accepted by both China and foreign states”.

Waixuan presents an effort for China to remake itself in the digital era by establishing a fresh image that is acceptable internationally. While the Chinese government has a history of minimising or outright censoring negative content about the party, their state-run media has shifted away from this rigid propagandistic writing style in favour of a much more energetic and literary form of expression to “make people sympathetic to the Party’s agenda.

Positive and Constructive Journalism

This is largely about positive and constructive journalism. Positive journalism is journalism that aims to elicit positive emotions from the public, whereas constructive journalism is the activity of presenting more acceptable kinds of criticism in their media and internet practice. Posting panda-themed tweets, spotlighting contrarian articles, quick comebacks, and wholesome video clips, are all part of the Chinese government’s attempts to use soft power to ‘to shape perceived interests’ among target audiences.

We see a combination of both of these practises online, especially on more international platforms. To better showcase this, we turn to China’s public diplomacy initiatives on two social media platforms: Twitter and Weibo. Twitter is a microblogging and social networking website based in the United States (US) that allows users to send and receive messages known as “tweets.” Similarly, Weibo is a microblogging and social networking website, launched on August 14, 2009, and is one of China’s most popular social networking networks.

Twitter vs Weibo

Although these two social media platforms are separate, they share an intermestic communication network led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Intermestic denotes the interconnectedness and relevance between domestic and international policy. The content of tweets from China’s diplomatic accounts frequently replicates content (though, using different tones and demeanours) from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (MFA) on Weibo. Unsurprisingly, all messages are subjected to filtering by the CCP’s censoring department prior to publication.

Around October 2019, during one of the negotiations between China and the US, the US used human rights violations in Xinjiang Uyghur camps as a reason to deny visas to certain Chinese officials and their families. In the same week, Chinese officials retaliated by using two different techniques on Weibo and Twitter.

According to Huang’s speech, MFA’s official diplomatic accounts on Weibo slammed Washington’s actions, calling them erroneous, arrogant, and gravely misguided.

On Twitter, however, it was a different story. They framed the identical issue using modest attitudes in this case. While maintaining that the decision was made in error, Chinese diplomats professed goodwill and innocence on behalf of the Chinese government, pointing out that the Chinese government does not have the same standards for American diplomats and consular offices in China.

This is a clear example of constructive journalism:

Chinese embassy in the US Twitter account showing modest attitudes while describing US restrictions on Chinese diplomats. | Photo Credit: Chinese embassy in the US Twitter account

We see the same strategy being employed today. On July 26, 2021, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had a much-anticipated visit to China for talks with Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin.

This discussion was framed very differently by the Chinese on the two media platforms. On Twitter, Sherman said she spoke with Wang about the US commitment to healthy competition, defending human rights and democratic ideals, and building the rules-based international system that benefits us all, as agreed upon by the Chinese embassy Twitter account.

On the state-affiliated Weibo account, however, Wang summarised the conversations in a far more harsh and demanding tone. Wang made three “demands” to Sherman: the US must not challenge or seek to subvert China’s governance model, it must not interfere in China’s development, and it must not violate China’s sovereignty or harm its territorial integrity.

This shows a strong connection among China’s digital institutions, as well as the MFA’s leadership role in organising internal and external communication. While both messages push for the parties interest, the Twitter interactions were messaged in such a way that would invoke feelings of diplomacy, compromise, and overall positive emotion. It portrays China as someone willing to reach out and accept criticism and work for the overall diplomatic good.

Twitter intertextuality

By the middle of 2021, China had raised the number of para-diplomatic accounts on Twitter from roughly 14 in 2018 to over 500. Twitter, more than any other social media platform, has been at the core of the most extensive and negative international criticism of China. As a result, it has risen to the top of their priority list. China is particularly concerned about foreign actors’ soft power in shaping international opinion against them and interfering with their daiwaixuan on what looks to be a somewhat democratic platform where they could not extensively control the public opinion.

Consider the recent trade war between the US and China as an example. Intertextuality emerged as a result of Xi Jinping’s vow that no new tariffs should be imposed and that a single China policy should be adopted (When agencies disseminate the same material in several languages via multiple social media profiles, this is known as intertextuality). As seen in the table below, 34 tweets were revolving around the same sentence, spread among 10 Twitter accounts, nine countries, and four languages. This positive message was constantly repeated all across Twitter.

Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts intertextuality showcased. | Photo Credit: Alexander Huang, Public diplomacy conference, 2021

China has a largely top-down digital public diplomacy communication network with these two different strategies domestically and internationally. By embracing the era of digital communication, China is taking a proactive attempt in their public diplomacy to promote the CCP’s agenda. 

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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