In my 2019 book, The Digitalization of Public Diplomacy, I dedicated a chapter to Ambassadors’ use of Twitter. My assertion was that Ambassadors may be viewed by digital publics as trusted sources of information. This is because Ambassadors have privileged access to information, they have access to the highest echelons of power, they are viewed as peacemakers, they are foreign policy experts and they are untainted by the stain of politics.
My analysis found that Ambassadors can dramatically increase the digital reach of their Embassies. Moreover, I found that Ambassadors use Twitter towards three ends. First, Ambassadors use Twitter to practice real-time diplomacy. Such was the case with the British Ambassador to the UN who would live-tweet Security Council meetings. Second, Ambassadors used Twitter to offer followers a ‘behind the scenes’ look at diplomacy. Such tweets often aimed to increase the perceived transparency of diplomacy, a profession traditionally shrouded in secrecy. Ambassadors often published images of hallway conversations at NATO headquarters. Finally, Ambassadors identified trusted sources of information. The EU’s Ambassador to the US, for example, would share a daily list of ‘must-read’ articles thus helping his followers access relevant and accurate information.
Over the past two years, Chinese Ambassadors have migrated en-masse to Twitter. This represents a fundamental shift in China’s online diplomacy as it did not operate official accounts on ‘Western’ social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. In this week’s post I sought to analyze how Chinese Ambassadors use Twitter and whether their use is similar to that of European and North American Ambassadors. To this end, I evaluated the Twitter account of China’s Ambassadors to: The US, the UK, the Korean Peninsula, the UN in NY, the UN in Geneva, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, the Netherlands, Zanzibar and India.
My analysis found that like their peers in Europe and the US, Chinese Ambassadors also use Twitter to practice a form of real-time diplomacy. Such was the case with a tweet from the Chinese Ambassador to the US who was heading back to Washington after the Anchorage trade talks. Another series of tweets was published by China’s Ambassador to the UN in NY. In these tweets, the Ambassador discussed the agenda of the Security Council under China’s Presidency, while also live-tweeting Security Council discussions on the crisis between Israel and the Hamas held Gaza Strip
In addition, Chinese Ambassadors used Twitter to comment on events unfolding across the world. The Ambassador to the US tweeted about the new legislation on Honk Kong while the Ambassadors to the UN and the Korean Peninsula shared information on Covid vaccines. the Ambassador to Geneva, on his part, saluted nurses on World Nurses Day.
Chinese Ambassadors also used Twitter to enhance the perceived transparency of diplomacy. In one tweet, the Ambassador to the US shared an official report on China’s economic growth. The Ambassador to the UK shared images of China emerging from Covid lockdowns, thus negating online rhetoric that China was concealing a possible Covid outbreak. The Ambassador to Geneva tweeted that China was ‘open to the world’. Though the tweet dealt with trade, the language negates accusations that China hides information from the world. The Ambassador to the UN shared a statement on the use of chemical weapons. In all these tweets Chinese Ambassadors openly shared official information alongside quotes from diplomatic deliberations.
Like their European peers, Chinese Ambassadors tailored their online content to local followers. For instance, in one tweet the Chinese Ambassador to the US quoted Henry Kissinger thus appealing to US Twitter users. The Ambassador to the UK took part in the digital commemoration of Prince Philip’s life while the Ambassador to India documented efforts to deliver ventilators to India which is suffering from a Covid outbreak.
However, there were areas where Chinese Ambassadors differed from their colleagues in Europe and North America. For instance, a large number of tweets focused on Ambassadors’ media appearances or statements made to the press. Through these tweets, Chinese Ambassadors may have sought to reshape China’s international image as the country is often criticized for its strict media censorship. Here, there was an obvious difference as European Ambassadors use Twitter to help followers sift through a barrage of online daily information and different news sources.
Another set of tweets that sought to reshape China’s image focused on China’s ‘peaceful rise’. One Ambassador stated that the Chinese space program would benefit all mankind. Another detailed China’s efforts to reverse climate change. China’s Ambassador to Geneva tweeted about the importance of multilateralism while also stating that China’s story was mankind’s’ story. Finally, the Ambassador to the UN focused on China’s contribution to peacekeeping missions. These tweets all positively frame China’s emergence as a global power and suggest that as a world power China will promote collaborative, peaceful solutions to planetary challenges.
National image management is not inherently Chinese yet Chinese Ambassadors seem to be more in sync than their European peers as they promote a coherent and global Chinese narrative. This was true with regard to China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and with regard to the alleged mistreatment of the Uyghur minority.
In summary, my analysis found that Chinese Ambassadors use Twitter in a manner consistent with European and North American Ambassadors. Specifically, Chinese Ambassadors use Twitter to offer real-time narration of global events, increase the perceived transparency of diplomacy and tailoring content to local followers. However, Chinese Ambassadors also use Twitter in a coordinated fashion to reshape China’s image. This consists of three activities. First, depicting China as open and Chinese diplomats as open to the media. Second, framing China’s rise as a positive process for the world. Third, negating stories that the Uyghur is suffering from state-sanctioned violence and that a genocide is taking place. As such. Chinese Ambassadors seem to use Twitter to project a coherent and global narrative.