Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
Diplomacy in 280 Characters: Ensuring Social Media Benefits Sino-U.S. Relations
Social media platforms have provided useful ways for governments worldwide to directly engage with the public and assess a range of opinions and reactions to announcements, developments, etc, domestically and abroad. Because U.S. and Chinese popular audiences exist in separate social media spheres (e.g. Twitter and Facebook in the United States and Weibo and WeChat in China), they also remain largely disconnected from one another. Beyond the obvious language difference component, accessibility is a major factor in this, with few platforms appealing to both audiences that can successfully make it through the so-called ‘Great Firewall’; TikTok is perhaps the most notable exception, but, even then, it is still handled differently in both countries. This fissure in the U.S. and Chinese social media landscapes is a key roadblock in achieving mutual understanding between people from both countries. It is in this space that diplomatic officials on both sides have sought to step-in and present their particular country’s perspective and narrative. With the current state of social media as it stands, both countries will likely continue to incorporate and capitalize on foreign social media in order to expand their own public diplomacy initiatives and foreign policy priorities. Though undoubtedly necessary, this shift must be made carefully and in a way that will benefit rather than harm public understanding and the future of Sino-American relations.
Perhaps the most immediately recognizable social media icon from the United States government at present is the President. While President Trump’s Twitter feed is full of unofficial commentaries, unfiltered thoughts, and retweets on contemporary events, he during the past year has only published a handful of tweets on the state of Sino-American relations, perhaps because of the Trade War and the sensitivity of the ‘Phase One’ deal — a December 2019 tweet on the World Bank loaning money to China was the most recent instance of a more inflammatory tweet on this subject. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has tweeted slightly more frequently on China, including more painted accusations against the country on human rights abuses and violations of religious freedom. Outside of the President and the Secretary of State and apart from the U.S. social media sphere as a whole, however, the Department of State has taken a more measured approach relaying official messages and platforms on Chinese social media. Regardless of whether this reserved stance can be attributed to the U.S. diplomats behind these accounts or the censorship and content restrictions ingrained in these sites, official U.S. social media presence in China is by all means professional and diplomatic, if not somewhat lacking.
Just as U.S. officials have ventured into Chinese social media, so, too, have Chinese officials into American platforms. Chinese diplomats in the United States have in recent months stepped up their social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, platforms both unavailable to Chinese netizens. Within these new accounts, Chinese officials have simultaneously defended their country’s reputation and taken a decidedly more aggressive stance against Western media portrayals of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Belt & Road, and other issues. By doing so, they have taken advantage of the freedom of expression available to them on Twitter to voice their own concerns; this is something that should be welcomed, but also reciprocated for U.S. officials in China. Moreover, the Twitter feeds of prominent Americans not in government have been scrutinized for negative opinions of China and have often been met with resistance from domestic Chinese audiences thereafter, such as the case of the Houston Rockets general manager and the NBA’s subsequent scramble to balance the U.S. and Chinese markets. It is understandable why China might go down a more assertive road in such turbulent times, however this will only serve to isolate the very U.S. public that it is ostensibly appealing to with the creation of these accounts. President Trump and official feed for domestic U.S. audiences aside, it remains the case that U.S. officials are not storming Chinese social media to directly challenge the state’s actions or rhetoric, and would likely face some fairly serious diplomatic backlash if they did. With social media’s dark side and exploitability that has already been revealed in the United States, it is imperative that the Chinese government does not entrench itself too deeply in an aggressively defensive position on these platforms. If there is an expectation that foreign diplomats should behave with a degree of professionalism and respect on official social media accounts in China, this should also be reciprocated by Chinese diplomats in the United States.
Neither side is wholly to blame in this practice and there are demonstrated instances of unacceptable or unprofessional online behavior by both U.S. and Chinese officials. However, given the public-facing nature of social media and the general lack of connectedness or mutual understanding between the Chinese and American publics at this time, overt displays of condemnation or indignation must be outright avoided by officials on both sides. Otherwise, digital and public diplomacy in Sino-American relations will be reduced to little more than a spectacle of disgruntled exchanges rather than a legitimate tool of statecraft.
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