Twitter and Digital Diplomacy: China and COVID-19

LSE IDEAS Strategic Update by Chris Alden and Kenddrick Chan

Why is China using Twitter for diplomacy?

Although virtually all of the 193 of the UN member states (including China) have some form of presence on Twitter, China is relatively new to using Twitter as a platform for diplomacy (“Twiplomacy”) with the official account of the Chinese Foreign Ministry (@MFA_China) having joined only as recently as 2018. Nonetheless, as the data will show, there has been a relative surge in the amount of Twitter activity of official Chinese accounts since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. There are three possible intertwined reasons for China’s active embracement of Twitter as a platform to conduct public diplomacy, with all three reasons largely revolving in some way or other around the notion of public opinion management.

How does China’s MFA use Twitter Diplomacy?

To get a better idea of how China uses Twitter, we first looked at several official Twitter accounts of Chinese foreign policy entities (embassies and aid agencies). By connecting to Twitter’s API, we were able to access and extract the latest 3200* tweets (the maximum allowed) sent out by each of the following accounts:

What does this mean for Chinese Twitter Diplomacy in the future?

Our reading of China’s Twitter diplomacy suggests that there are already some clear trends and even speculative avenues for understanding how China might use Twitter for diplomacy in the near future. First, the usage of Twitter diplomacy is effectively a ‘crisis messaging tool’ for Beijing. The global nature of the issue and its immediate strategic importance to China defines the necessity of utilising the Twitter to shape the emerging debate on a given topic, given how Twitter is the “preferred channel” for conducting digital diplomacy[6]. Due to widespread domestic[7] and international criticism over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s carefully crafted image of itself as a capable global leader was in danger of receding[8]. Faced with momentous pressure to push back against an anti-CCP narrative, the Chinese authorities have sought to use Twitter as a vital instrument in their efforts to do so. Twitter provided an instrument for swift, targeted rebuttals that reached a global audience in near real-time. Twitter has served as a platform through which China can push out swift and targeted rebuttals in real-time, all whilst reaching a global audience. Twitter diplomacy has therefore given China some much-needed breathing room. We note that as the COVID-19 crisis has ‘normalised’ in recent months — arguably a mark of China’s relatively successful transition out of crisis — and the focus has shifted to other countries’ management of the crisis, this has allowed other issues is creep up the agenda. As a result, Beijing’s use of Twitter diplomacy has similarly become routine, and the accompanying volume of traffic related to the COVID-19 pandemic has decreased in comparison from the height of the outbreak. We anticipate that this trend will continue, with China’s Twitter activism surging in line with its perceived necessity of managing the crisis narrative of a given issue. Doing so will allow Chinese authorities to potentially pre-empt any unfavourable narratives from gaining momentum.

About the authors

Professor Chris Alden is Professor of International Relations at LSE and Director of LSE IDEAS. He is author/ co-author of numerous books, including Foreign Policy Analysis — New Approaches 2nd edition (Routledge 2017) and co-editor of New Directions in Africa-China Studies (Routledge 2019) and China and Africa — building peace and security cooperation on the continent (Palgrave 2017).

Notes

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/07/15/responding-uighur-criticism-chinese-diplomat-points-racial-segregation-dc/

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LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.

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LSE IDEAS

LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.