Digital Public Diplomacy: How Chinese Social Media Is Changing the Way Diplomatic Missions in China Engage with Local Audiences

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With the rapid growth and increasing popularity of Chinese social media, foreign embassies and consulates in China have been quick to establish online presences on some of China’s most popular microblogging platforms such as Sina Weibo (新浪微博) and on mobile communication services such as Wechat (微信). In this post, we will explore how diplomatic missions in China use Chinese social media, and what strategies they employ in order to best engage and communicate with local audiences.

‘It is of great importance that we as a public organization that wants to brand Denmark and Danish culture are present on the Chinese social media.’
– Friis Arne Petersen, Danish Ambassador to China (in Technode)

For foreign embassies and consulates in China, the increasing importance of public diplomacy has created a variety of challenges, most of which revolve around the following conundrum: how can foreign diplomatic missions best engage local Chinese audience in a meaningful, informative and ultimately rewarding conversation?

Social media platforms allow diplomatic missions in China to reach out to local Chinese publics and expat populations in ways that are far more direct, interactive and far-reaching than tradition channels of public diplomacy (such as speeches or newspaper articles). In March of 2014, Sina Weibo counted 144 million monthly active users; reflecting its ever-increasing popularity, WeChat counted 470 million monthly active users at the end of 2014. If positioned intelligently and executed cleverly, a foreign embassy’s social media presence has the potential to reach an audience that significantly exceeds the size of audiences reached by traditional channels of public diplomacy. By way of illustration, the French Embassy in Beijing (240,000 followers) and the American Embassy in Beijing (920,000 followers) have amassed a sizeable online following. To put these figures into perspective, the Weibo account of the Beijing Subway System reaches almost 2 million people, whereas the Beijing City Government’s Weibo account lists 6 million followers.

Arguably more important than the size of audiences to be reached through digital public diplomacy, however, are the notably improved methods of engagement afforded by social media platforms. Both Weibo and Wechat allow embassies to engage with local audiences in novel ways. Followers share, like and comment on content posted on embassies’ social media accounts, thus not only providing diplomatic representations with instant feedback on what sort of content attracts user attention, but also allowing embassy officials to directly respond to user comments and queries. The Swedish Embassy’s approach to digital diplomacy further illustrates the potential of social media to generate meaningful interaction with local audiences: on its Weibo account, the Swedish Embassy, among other things, gives “Swedish ministers or officials an opportunity to chat directly with Chinese microbloggers.” The more private nature of WeChat allows for an even more personal interaction with local audiences. Friis Arne Petersen, Denmark’s Ambassador in China, explains the value of WeChat as a tool of public diplomacy as follows:

‘I think the intimacy that you have on WeChat allows for more lengthy and personal stories from Denmark that you won’t find on for example Weibo. On WeChat you have a one-to-one dialogue with people following you, while on Weibo you have a big virtual megaphone speaking to a large crowd’

In addition to the more intimate nature of audience engagement, WeChat further sets itself apart from Weibo by allowing for interaction with both Chinese and non-Chinese (expat) audiences. This is primarily due to WeChat’s popularity among both Chinese and non-Chinese users. As a predominantly Chinese language platform, Weibo accounts are primarily – if not exclusively – targeted at Chinese audiences; WeChat, on the other hand, is available in 15 languages, thus allowing embassies to reach out to Chinese audiences and expat populations located in China. The French Embassy in Beijing, for instance, runs two separate WeChat profiles, in French and in Chinese. Having two separate accounts allows the Embassy to efficiently address the distinct content demands of Chinese audiences and French expats in China.

Besides providing more direct, interactive and targeted channels of communication with local audiences, maintaining a presence on Chinese social media also has very tangible pragmatic benefits for foreign diplomatic representations in China. In fact, as Mark McDowell, former counselor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, points out:

‘At the embassy we are very interested in documenting specific, measurable benefits of social media. So for example we can show that we can use it to flatten out peak demand periods for visa applications, or to market education fairs more effectively and efficiently.’

In short, then, for foreign diplomatic representations in China, having a strong presence on the country’s most important social networks – Weibo and WeChat – is of key strategic importance: not only do Weibo and WeChat allow diplomatic missions to increase and diversify their demographic reach, but they also allow for more personal, direct and interactive engagement with local audiences.

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