The “Great Firewall” of China has long been known, where citizens within the nation’s boundaries are unable to access many Western social media platforms, from YouTube to Twitter.
Is it then counter-intuitive that Chinese Diplomats would be taking to platforms where their country’s people don’t have access?
This new move may indicate a shift in foreign policy – opening a window onto the issues and narratives the nation wishes to portray. These accounts have little to do with internal politics, and far more with their international relations.
When did these key figures and diplomats begin taking to social media?
The arrival of the Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, to the platform in June 2019 kicked off a swath of other ambassadors joining Twitter. Zhang Lizhong, the Ambassador to the Maldives, joined within the same month with the Ambassador to Austria, Li Xiaosi, following suit in September. The Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, marked his entrance into the Twittersphere in mid-October along with Lijian Zhao, upon his appointment as Deputy Director-General of the Information Department.
Chinese state media has long been on Twitter and Facebook, with editorials from the likes of China Daily, China Xinhua News, and People’s Daily acting as a direct line to the Chinese narrative of the Hong Kong protests. In fact, the Editor of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, has been on Twitter since August 2014. These agencies have been publishing editorials throughout the Hong Kong protests, highlighting the Chinese stance on a range of issues – from the US bipartisan bill, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, to what they call “foreign interference” spurring on the protests.
But these posts and profiles go beyond the Hong Kong demonstrations. Even the profile of China Daily describes itself as a platform that is “inspiring constructive dialogue between China and the US“. The posts can be of high geopolitical significance, the 280 characters often delving deeper than official statements.
One of those posts links back to US President Donald Trump’s quips that he was interested in buying Greenland. Although this was shrugged off by many as a laughable jab at extending the US real estate market, Chinese state media pointed to an underlying and far more complex possibility – that of Greenland’s unexplored mineral potential. China Daily took to Twitter, claiming that Trump’s interest in Greeland “exposed his anxiety about China’s production of rare earth metals” – key minerals for high tech that China has dominance over.
Can the accounts give an indication of key foreign policy objectives?
The tweets published by Chinese Ambassadors can provide another new unique window into China’s foreign policy. Taking just three tweets published by the new Ambassador on the Twitter block, Xiaoming, you can see what narratives and strategies the government has in place.
Ambassadors have been taking to Twitter to combat the Hong Kong narrative, and that is something echoed across numerous diplomatic social media accounts. Taking to Twitter, Xiaoming said questioned press freedom, saying that the media hadn’t covered the “activities of looting, setting fire and attacking police”.The Chinese Ambassador to the UK also dovetailed onto the NBA spat via the very platform the controversy began.
Arguably one of the most interesting lines on social media is an underreported one – China’s growing influence in the African continent, and this is a theme repeated across accounts. Both Xiaoming and the Chinese Ambassador to Austria, Xiaosi, have alluded to China’s financial interests in countries across Africa. This comes as Vladimir Putin welcomed 47 African leaders to Sochi in mid-October, in what is a battle for dominance between two powers.
What’s key here is that these accounts, be it Twitter profiles of diplomats or state media, aim to maintain the Chinese narrative on Twitter in what is often a Trumpian landscape.
Click on the player above where Seana in The Cube explains more.
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