Understanding China/Western diplomacy through Twitter

What the two sides' social media channels tell us about their broader diplomatic goals

Hello fellow China Watchers

Following on from my article about the CCP’s global messaging the other week, I had lots of feedback on the differing social media strategies of West vs East. As such I thought that I’d take a closer look at what’s happening on social channels, and see if the messaging being pumped out can give us any insights into broader diplomatic efforts.

I’ll be back next week for my final article on China and South East Asia, looking at how effective the region’s attempts are to stay neutral in the Great Competition between Beijing and Washington.

In the meantime, please do consider sharing and subscribing.

Many thanks for reading. 

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Social media is a key tool in international relations. Acting as an auxiliary in the global media fight, it is used to promote a nation’s messages and propaganda, and to counter-message attacks from hostile governments.

Nowhere is this more the case than between China and the West. Both sides invest heavily in social media outreach in an effort to damage the other and to win allies to its cause. 

It is though important to note that, like traditional media channels, China has far more access to Western social media channels than the other way around. For example, according to its head of communications, the British Embassy in Beijing - alongside all other foreign missions in China - has been blocked from live broadcasting on Sina Weibo since 2017. On the other hand, China is allowed to livestream Twitter. 

(That said, Twitter did block the Chinese Embassy in the US earlier this year over a controversial tweet it made concerning Xinjiang: that Chinese government had emancipated Uighur women by stopping them from being “baby making machines.”) 

Despite the fact that the number of followers for all of these channels combined is in the low millions (much less than on TV or in newspapers), by looking at what the governments are posting, we can get an understanding of the diplomatic priorities of the different countries when it comes to the Great Competition. 

Given the lighter restrictions on Twitter, I decided to use this platform to examine how these priorities might shine through. 

Taking China and America first, it’s clear that neither country sees much importance in calling for cooperation between the two great powers. 

The US mission in China account is a mix of tweets attacking China directly, and tweets pushing back on Chinese diplomatic efforts like its international vaccine programme. 

There is very little in the way of calls for cooperation - it’s almost as if they want to provoke Beijing at every turn.

Tomorrow, we recognize 22 years since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched a campaign of repression against the Falun Gong movement and its millions of practitioners” is pretty standard messaging, as is this: “Beyond the compromise of Microsoft Exchange Server, the PRC’s Ministry of State Security cultivated an ecosystem of criminal hackers harmful to people and organizations globally”.

They even wished the Dalai Lama a happy birthday, something sure to upset the CCP.

China’s Twitter accounts in the US and UK are split between denying Western accusations against them, and promoting Chinese government propaganda. 

Much of their defensive communications is around Xinjiang and the Uighurs, for example this tweet: “Does #Xinjiang really have forced sterilization policy? Find out what real scholars in #Xinjiang have to say”. Much of the positive stories that the account is pumping out relate to environmental improvements made by the CCP, no doubt to help pave the way to the COP 26 talks this November. “Elchole Cai, 30, resident of a small town in east China's Anhui Province, said she will never forget the moment she read the news about China putting an end to imports of solid waste in 2017. It came as a shock to her.”

In neither Chinese Embassy account is there much in the way of calls for better cooperation with their host countries. Is this because Beijing has given up? Or is it that they feel that it’s better to just keep pushing their own agenda? Likewise with America – has it decided that the only way to deal with China is to attack it?

By comparison, the UK mission to Beijing– now run by Caroline Wilson, a well-respected middle-of-the-road diplomat and China expert – is much more upbeat. 

Some of the tweets might be strongly critical of nefarious Chinese activities around the world, for example:

Today the UK & our allies are holding the Chinese state responsible for significant & widespread cyber intrusions, including attacks on the Microsoft Exchange servers. The Chinese state must end these reckless acts

But others – many others, in fact – are refreshingly cooperative in nature. One mentions an Anglo-Chinese project that has developed new tools to help urban planners assess and mitigate the risks of climate change in cities across the world. Another announces a recent discussion between a Chinese and a British minister on how to come together in the forthcoming COP26 climate talks.

This bridging stance is very much reflective of how many civil servants I talk to see the UK-China relationship – in other words, not overly combative - despite what many in the mainstream press want to imagine. 

Whilst it’s important not to read too much into this brief analysis, but it is perhaps worth a deeper look to see how these nation’s communications departments are being asked to message.