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Twitter running on an iPhone. Image by Solen Feyissa available at Unsplash under CC license and recreated by Chabiński Michał.

01:41 pm | May 25, 2021

Chinese Twiplomacy in the age of COVID-19

How effective is China’s twiplomacy in the global social media sphere? Studying the Twitter and Weibo accounts of five Chinese embassies in Europe revealed confusion and few coherent strategies.

By Michal Chabinski and Liang Shixin

Quick Take

  • The COVID-19 crisis was the first chance for Chinese embassies in Europe to use their recently built social media presence.

  • The aggressive “wolf warrior”-style communication strengthened support back home, but did not create positive outcomes in the non-Chinese social media sphere.

  • At the height of the pandemic, Chinese diplomatic accounts did not primarily serve the purpose of supporting Chinese citizens in the EU with reliable information.
  • The data disprove the belief in China’s homogenous and effective foreign policy.

 

Since 2019, China has embraced Western social media in order to avoid being excluded from the global discussion. This approach in Chinese foreign policy can be linked to the general rise of “Twiplomacy” (the use of social media by diplomats to conduct diplomatic outreach), the perception that popular social media platforms can be used to combat negative narratives about China, and the shift to more aggressive practices, called “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” by Western observers. 

In theory, performing public diplomacy via Twitter allows diplomats to directly reach local audiences and bypass local news media, which Chinese state media have called “China hating” for publishing unfavorable stories about the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  Following the “Tell China’s stories well” (讲好中国故事) doctrine, put forward by Xi Jinping in the National Propaganda and Ideological Work Conference in August 2013, Chinese diplomats to the European Union took on a reactionary stance in order to protect the image of their home country. This ‘offensive’ of Chinese diplomats on social media is both a product of explicit instructions from above and bottom-up initiative to impress superiors within the Chinese party-state apparatus, according to a paper published by the Prague-based Association for International Affairs (AMO).

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused strict lockdowns and travel restrictions, an even greater share of international diplomatic activities moved online and social media became even more important for communicating foreign policy issues worldwide. In early 2020, Chinese diplomats in Europe significantly increased their activity on social media, with the intention of protecting China’s reputation, which had been undermined by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan. This was the first time Chinese diplomacy employed their newly built presence on Twitter to present, spread, and support their narratives outside of the country.

In this article we analyze the origins of Chinese diplomatic presence on social media and the effectiveness of these campaigns. We collected Tweets and WeChat posts from official accounts of five Chinese European embassies (Germany, United Kingdom, France, Poland, and Spain) in the period between December 2019 and August 2020. This study—based on 7,717 posts from Twitter and 1,813 posts from WeChat Public Accounts—aims to explain the structures behind their social media campaign and estimate the extent to which their efforts have had an impact on the perception of China among the EU member states and Chinese citizens at home.

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Chinese diplomacy on Twitter

Until mid-2019, only six of the Chinese embassies in the EU member states ran active accounts on EU’s widely popular social media platforms, Facebook or Twitter (both services are banned in China). By September 2020, 22 Chinese embassies to the EU and UK ran operational accounts on Twitter, Facebook, or both. The only EU countries where Chinese embassies do not have active social media accounts are Belgium, Croatia, Lithuania, Portugal, and Sweden. (The last one may come as a surprise, as China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, is well-known for sharp comments and for denouncing Swedish media as ‘anti-Chinese’.)

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All of the Twitter accounts we analyzed were opened only in the second half of 2019. They have been active ever since, with the most active profile being that of the embassy to France, with an average of 390 tweets per month. The least active is the account of the embassy to Poland, with an average of 53 tweets per month.

The presence of Chinese institutions and politicians on Twitter and their engagement on the platform is diametrically different from their European or American counterparts. The biggest difference lies in the interactions patterns. Though the profiles of Chinese officials and institutions mainly like and reshare content from Chinese state-owned media, there is also a significant amount of interaction between, for example, journalists, or YouTube influencers.

Take, for example, the account of the Chinese Embassy to France. The majority of retweets originate from state-owned media and from the French governmental accounts.  However, the account also includes content from unauthorized, minor accounts, constituting more than 15% of all the retweets. This consists of influencer content (travel recommendations, lifestyle) and political commentary. The retweeted content also includes posts from Chinese journalists, who run private accounts and have not been marked ‘state-affiliated’.

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Post retweeted by the Chinese Embassy suggesting the lavish lifestyle of the Uyghur minority. The original post was from twitter account @Sky_Blue168, which is suspended by Twitter. 

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Private profile of CCTV Journalist, often retweeted by the Chinese Embassy to France.

Twitter was blocked in China in 2009. However, by the beginning of 2020, popular Chinese state-owned international media outlets all had Twitter accounts: CGTN had more than 14 million followers and Xinhua News had 12.6 million followers. Although these numbers do not rival CNN Breaking News (56 million) or the New York Times (45 million), they are four times higher than Russia Today (3 million). Xinhua News, the first Chinese state-owned international media outlet to expand to social media platforms unavailable in PRC, began to broadcast its news on Twitter in 2012.

 

On August 6, 2020, Twitter announced the introduction of new labels for government and state-affiliated media accounts. This decision was prompted by increasing concerns about foreign governments running influence campaigns through media outlets that allow them to disguise their origins. The presence of Chinese profiles on the US-based social media platforms were strongly criticized after Twitter deleted several hundred accounts responsible for disinformation campaigns during the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

In January 2020, the number of Twitter posts began to rise. The number of posts peaked between March and May 2020 and then dropped steadily until mid-August 2020.

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Between January and mid-March of 2020, the majority of the twitter content, highlighted in keyword cloud above, related to efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 in China. The content started to slowly change on March 26, when the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US reached 82,404, eclipsing China’s 81,782 cases and Italy’s 80,589, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. China used this as a chance to change the media narrative. On Twitter, this meant the return to keywords—like ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘Hong Kong’—that had been extensively used before the period between January and March but had lost their leading position to ‘Wuhan’, ‘Virus’ and ‘Health’. Overall, however, content from the beginning of 2020 was invariably dominated by keywords ‘China’ and ‘COVID-19’.

Chinese diplomacy on WeChat

Chinese diplomacy simultaneously operates on WeChatthe multi-purpose social media app released by Tencent, which has 1.2 billion active users worldwide, according to the June 2020 Tencent annual report. The WeChat Public Account service (公众号) was introduced in August 2012. This function—comparable to official Facebook pages—provides a platform for institutions and companies to gain followers and publish official information. Unlike Twitter, WeChat Public Accounts can be accessed only on the WeChat app, which is available only on mobile devices. Users who want to access the content need to log in with their personal credentials and follow the Public Accounts. The owners of WeChat Public Accounts can choose to "only show the comment selected by the owner (显示精选评论)", what makes it easier to control the discussion.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China (MFA) opened its WeChat Official Account on May 7, 2013. The Official Accounts of Chinese embassies opened at various times after 2014, with a third being opened only after mid-2019. Just as with Twitter, not all the embassies in Europe run WeChat accounts.

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On WeChat, the accounts of Chinese embassies to foreign countries received growing attention during the outbreak of COVID-19, causing an increase in pageview and more likes. The content oscillated around updates on the COVID-19 infection rates and information on the constantly changing policies for both China and the countries where foreign embassies are located; sending out Health Packages (健康包) and establishing the Student United Anti-epidemic Group (学生团结抗疫群). That content, highly relevant to the overseas Chinese, created more traffic between different accounts, which also caused an increase in the number of followers during the outbreak.

Taking the Chinese Embassy in Spain as an example, the high pageviews of its WeChat Account in March 2020 is due to the high number of Covid-related posts. In March, 72 of the 73 posts by the Chinese Embassy in Spain were Covid-related. Of these, 37 posts have over 10,000 pageviews, and eight of them even have over 30,000 pageviews. In March 2020, the Chinese Embassy in Germany in WeChat opened a column called “German Epidemic Daily ( 德国疫情日报)” to provide updates on the local Covid statistics and German regulations in the Chinese language. These local Covid-related news attracted audiences with Chinese reading habit to follow their accounts and share the articles.

WeChat accounts, which also provided information related to consular affairs, seems to function as a platform for Chinese citizens. During the period we researched, Chinese embassies’ WeChat Official Accounts regularly provided updates regarding travel-related issues, whereas this information was rarely found on Twitter.

A Chinese success story on Twitter

In general, Twitter tends to be a platform used to express PRC-endorsed worldviews. The increasingly aggressive approach of Chinese diplomats on Twitter has caused consternation across the world. Many observers deem this approach a "new weapon" of Chinese state policy, one that is "incredibly effective" and that uses strategies developed by state-owned think tanks to strengthen "China’s ability to fight for international public opinion”. 

But by studying and comparing Twitter accounts from the five Chinese embassies in Europe, we found out that the accounts vary in form, content, and the level of engagement—suggesting a lack of centralized guidelines regarding how they should be run. More importantly, without real connections to the public sphere in the host countries, it is quite difficult to find a successful example that proves the effectiveness of China’s approach. The following story, from Spain at the beginning of the pandemic, might represent an exception.

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The screenshot of Chinese Embassy in Spain commented on Javier Ortega Smith's tweet with hashtag #StopRacismo (stop racism) on March 14, 2020.

The outbreak of COVID-19 caused a wave of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia around the world, bringing daily reports of discrimination and violence against people of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent. On March 14, 2020, Javier Ortega Smith, general secretary of Spanish far-right Vox party tweeted the following after testing positive for COVID-19:

"Mis anticuerpos españoles luchan contra los malditos virus chinos" My Spanish antibodies are fighting the evil Chinese virus

The Chinese Embassy in Madrid quickly commented on his tweet, condemning this narrative and advocating to avoid referring to any geographic location and cultural sphere when referring to the virus. The tweet also consisted of wishes for quick recovery and the hashtag #StopRacismo (stop racism). Javier Ortega Smith deleted his tweet, and the response of the Chinese Embassy received more than 38k likes, which is so far the most liked post on their Twitter profile.

Given that there are fewer than 30,000 followers of this embassy’s Twitter account, the high amount of retweets and likes indicates public support beyond the Chinese communities in Europe.

However, most of the tweets from Chinese embassies across Europe did not gain much attention in their host countries. On February 7, 2020, the Chinese Embassy in Germany posted a video of Tobi, a vlogger who praised China's success in fighting the epidemic and condemned the anti-Chinese sentiment. This tweet received one negative comment and only 29 likes.

Messaging back home

The same video from Tobi was also posted by the Chinese Embassy in Germany on WeChat with the title "A young German guy says “In the face of the pandemic, we are all China (一位德国小伙说,疫情面前,我们都是中国!’)." On WeChat, this message received more than 100,000 views and around 7,000 Likes, making it the most-liked post, only a month after the opening of this WeChat account.

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Screenshots of the WeChat Public Account and Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy to Germany with the video of Tobi.

Tobi, however, is not a mere influencer. He is the owner of Detong GmbH, a company that, according to the German Commercial Register, provides “German-Chinese cultural exchange, provision of scientific, artistic, literary and teaching services, import and export of trade goods […], and Internet marketing.” His video, which supports Chinese diplomacy to legitimize China’s response to the pandemic, could be seen as a marketing tool and a message for the Chinese audience.  

Sending messages from abroad back to the Chinese public space does not always go well, especially on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like social media service that can be considered a more open public forum than WeChat. None of the Chinese embassies in Europe run a Weibo account. Unlike WeChat, Weibo has a desktop version. The content is sometimes visible on search engines, and it is easier to comment under the post and stay anonymous. 

Accounts from the government and news agencies frequently lose control over the course of discussion on Weibo. Although some Weibo official accounts can delete comments by filtering users’ names or sensitive words, when a post attracts a vast amount of reposts and comments, the account holder can only choose to hide all the comments or delete the post. Such a situation happened when Global Times ( 环球时报) quoted the announcement of the Chinese Embassy in the UK.

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The Global Times (环球时报) Weibo reposted the announcement by the Chinese Embassy to the UK on September 10 , 2020 saying that the Liu Xiaoming’s Twitter was attacked and the users’ commented under the post.

On September 10, 2020, the Chinese Embassy to the UK posted an announcement on their website and WeChat stating: "some anti-China elements viciously attacked ambassador Liu Xiaoming’s Twitter account and employed despicable methods to deceive the public"—right after the Twitter account of the Chinese Ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, liked a tweet of an X-rated video. The embassy also demanded that Twitter launch an investigation, but a Twitter representative declined to comment on China's demand.

No comments were visible under this WeChat post made by the Chinese embassy, but when the Global Times (环球时报) Weibo account posted about the Twitter incident, quoting the Embassy’s announcement, it received 3,700 comments and 2,700 reposts, with the most popular comments being negative. On the one hand, the users pointed that the diplomat probably shifted the blame to Twitter; on the other hand, they commented, "we want to support you, but our country wouldn't allow us to use Twitter", mocking the Great Firewall and criticizing the fact that embassies and ambassadors have the privilege to use the foreign platform.

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Screenshot of Sohu News on October 19, 2020 showing that a man was punished by the police for using VPN and browsing “overseas website (境外网站).”

Since 2012, Chinese netizens have  voiced their dissatisfaction with state agencies using Twitter despite the platform being blocked in the country. In fact, Chinese citizens overseas are still subject to the jurisdictions of Chinese law. At the beginning of 2020, a Chinese student at the University of Minnesota was arrested in China and sentenced to six months in prison for tweets he posted while in the United States. The screenshot below show,  that a man was punished by the police for using a virtual private network (VPN) and browsing “overseas website (境外网站).”

Discontent appeared under the Sohu News post, with the top comment ridiculing  Little Pink Wolf Warrior (粉红战狼)” and the Foreign Ministry spokespersons for using Twitter without punishment. This referred to Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying, Foreign Ministry spokespeople who are highly active on Twitter. Their actions were condemned  with a Chinese idiom: “a tyrant boss or leader can do whatever he likes, but the common people are not allowed the slightest bit of freedom (只许州官放火,不许百姓点灯)” .

Zhao Lijian became the Deputy Director General of the Department of Information in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2019. Mr. Zhao, who opened his Twitter account in 2010, was one of the first Chinese politicians to actively use Twitter to promote the party line since 2015 when he was posted to Islamabad as deputy chief of mission. Buzzfeed.News called him “the combative, bombastic, frankly Trumpy voice of the People’s Republic of China on Twitter”.

Zhao Lijian was the prototype of the current presence of Chinese politicians and institutions on Twitter and the model for "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy". Zhao’s promotion to the position of the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after openly voicing his opinion that PRC should use Twitter and social media as “a weapon to combat negative narratives, could be interpreted as an endorsement of his methods and narratives. He also remains one of the most mentioned persons on the profiles of Chinese embassies to European countries.

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Description: Post retweeted by the Chinese Embassy to France, from an account followed by Mr. Zhao.

The more than 174,000 accounts followed by Zhao Lijian include American pop star Beyoncé as well as the communist party of Wisconsin. The randomness of such selection contains the strategy—namely, the more traffic, the more visibility. The Twitter algorithm promotes posts liked by accounts that one follows creating space in the epistemic bubbles of other users. By generating more traffic purely through increasing one’s engagement on the platform, a profile can secure itself a place in ’you might like’ or ‚whom to follow’ tabs.

The extensive follower base of Mr. Zhao is surprising, since any form of aggressive following violates the Twitter Rules. In particular, his account shows signs of “indiscriminate following” (following and/or unfollowing a large number of unrelated accounts in a short time period, particularly by automated means). However, the fact that his account has not been suspended might suggest that his following base was acquired manually, without using any automated means to extend its reach.

Contradictory messages

It is clear that Twitter and WeChat are aimed at two different audiences. During the first wave of COVID-19, the Chinese Embassy in Berlin regularly posted about the situation in Germany, as well as newly implemented migration policies, on their WeChat account. In total, five Chinese embassies published 48 WeChat posts explaining new visa policies related to China and countries where the Embassies are located.

On Twitter, there were only 12 posts in total related to that issue, although the overall number of posts on Twitter was four times higher than on WeChat. Only the French and German accounts posted about the entry restrictions for foreigners holding Chinese visas or residence permits that was implemented on March 28. For Germany, this restriction was its only Tweet that referred to the consular matters. Detailed information on quickly changing immigration policies was available on the embassies' respective websites, but not on social media platforms.

Whereas WeChat served as a medium of communication between the embassies and Chinese nationals, Twitter failed to provide that for the Chinese who might be using the platform while abroad, or non-nationals who might be looking for consular affairs-related information. Instead, most content is related to tourism, trivia, and promoting Chinese domestic and international policies. In other words, while focusing on the mission of “telling China’s stories well”, the embassies’ Twitter profiles did not put much effort into "doing services well.”

The messages from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China (MFA) varied not only between the platforms, but also between Beijing and respective diplomatic representations abroad. The cracks in communication were clearly visible on July 20, when the Civil Aviation Administration of China, General Administration of Customs and the MFA jointly released an announcement that foreign passengers flying to China must  take a nucleic acid test for COVID-19 and apply for certified Health Declaration Form. Shortly after this announcement was released, the Chinese embassies of Germany, Poland, UK, and Spain posted contradictory announcements on WeChat to explain that the announcement is not applicable and that passengers do not need the nucleic acid test.

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Left: The obligatory Covid test announcement released on July 20,2020 by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, General Administration of Customs, and MFA.   Right: WeChat post on July 28, 2020 by Chinese Embassy of Germany announcing that passengers do not need to take a  COVID-19 test to board.

This suggests that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the requirements without communicating with Chinese embassies. This lack of coordination between MFA and Chinese embassies might be caused by the fact that there are two relatively separate spheres of communication: internal and external.  To domestic audiences, the three authorities demonstrated their determination to avoid imported cases by restricting entries. However, without considering whether their requirements would be feasible abroad, they left the embassies on their own to face the difficult task of providing reliable information to the public outside China.

Simultaneously, the policies for passengers flying to China became stricter and stricter. In August, the Chinese Embassy to Germany announced that a nucleic acid test within five days before departure would be required to board a China-bound flight. On September 1, the rule suddenly changed, and the test could not be taken any longer than three days before departure.      

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A Weibo post on November 18 collected the negative feedback from Chinese passengers communicating with the Chinese embassies.

The continually changing requirements created confusion for the passengers, and many of them contacted the embassies to received more detailed information. Some complained that they received rude feedbacks, as the screenshots on the left show. The murky policies and lack of response from the embassies led to the formation of private WeChat groups where Chinese citizens planning to return home exchanged information based on their experiences. Travelers who successfully returned to China shared their “return strategies” on Weibo, WeChat, and other platforms.

Those groups were often not positively received within the country. In March 2020, People’s Daily reported that netizens called the Chinese overseas students flying back to China “Poisoning (投毒).” The lack of central organization and cooperation between the MFA and the embassies resulted not only in the lack of reliable information regarding border control and quarantine policies, but might have also contributed to the negative sentiment towards the returnees, as the experiences they publicly shared contributed to the view that the return process was not well-planned and was not going to stop the spread of the virus.

Battlefield between US and China

During the White House press briefing on March 18, 2020, then-US President Donald Trump defended his frequent practice of calling COVID-19 the "Chinese Virus." "It’s not racist at all, it comes from China, that’s why," said Mr. Trump. While Chinese embassies in Europe on Twitter were trying to neutralize the virus and promote the use of the WHO-endorsed “COVID-19” terminology, Weibo users in China vigorously shared Zhao Lijian’s tweet screenshot claiming that the virus originated from the US. This fierce narrative battle has spilled over into Europe.

In March 2020, the US ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, retweeted a post from Morgan Ortagus spokesperson for the US State Departmentcriticizing comments made by Chinese MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying. The Chinese ambassador to Poland, Liu Guangyuan, responded to the Tweet by reposting an article from Ms. Hua that claimed the US government was pushing officials to criticize China. That was followed by a series of Tweets where both ambassadors tagged each other, accusing the other parties’ governmental bodies of mishandling the virus.

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                                               Left: The exchange of tweets between Liu Guangyuan and Georgette Mosbacher.   Right: Georgette Mosbacher tweet from April 30 with screenshots of alleged fake accounts attacking her on the platform.

The government in Warsaw did not officially responded to this feud, even though the Mosbacher-Liu Tweet exchange went beyond the realms of social media. Rzeczpospolita, leading Polish daily economic newspaper, published Liu’s article praising China’s endeavors to stop the pandemic. Later Onet, the largest web portal in Poland, published an interview with Mosbacher where she expressed her critical stance on China and accused Beijing of a lack of transparency. The conflict escalated on April 30, when Mosbacher posted a collection of screenshots showing Chinese bot accounts criticizing her on Twitter.

The exchange dragged on intermittently for the next months. ts form always followed the same pattern: once a topic on US-China relations began to trend on social media, the US ambassador provided a comment, which prompted a reply from the Chinese ambassador. In July, for example, the main topic became the discussion over the exclusion of Huawei in building 5G networks in Poland. The US government pushed its allies to ban the Chinese telecom company from providing 5G network equipment, in part because Huawei was blacklisted in the US in 2019 due to security concerns. On July 13 Mosbacher wrote: “China's 5G technology is cheaper because it is subsidized by the communist government to access global data,” and Guangyuan replied: “Huawei has become a 5G leader through hard work and heavy investment in research and development. It is high time for the US government to stop the shameless persecution of Chinese companies.” These exchanges remained unsolved and were not commented upon by any Ppolish officials. 

Jumping between topics, both ambassadors used Twitter to promote their national agendas, yet the messages were only seemingly directed at the Polish public. In fact, they were addressed to the respective parties, bringing back cold war-like indirect communication patterns.

To bot or not to bot

The profiles of the Chinese embassies struggle to maintain a positive reception, and have a high amount of unfavorable comments appearing under various posts. Although the origins of the virus still have not been officially confirmed, the Chinese city of Wuhan is often classified as the place of its origin, bringing the notoriety to the capital of Hubei, which previously was barely mentioned in Western media. In fall 2020, in an effort to destigmatize the province of Hubei, the Embassy of China in Poland posted a series of 52 photos depicting the picturesque sites of the region. This low-effort campaign received only positive comments and a relatively high share of likes and retweets.

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The Embassy of China in Poland posted a photo depicting the picturesque sites of Hubei on September 15, 2020. 

“The pandemic turned the eyes of the world to the province of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan. We encourage you to come with us on a virtual tour of Hubei and follow the daily exhibition of 52 photographs of this province. Each day one photo will be presented. We invite you to explore.”

However, when analyzing the accounts that liked these posts, it appears that the majority of them exhibit bot-like activity. An analysis conducted by nonprofit newsroom ProPublica in March 2020 showed that the Chinese government, to a high extent, attempts to wield influence on Twitter via using bots. Journalists have pointed out that a crucial amount of traffic on Chinese Twitter accounts are being generated by a Beijing-based internet marketing company under a contract commissioned by China News Service, the country’s second-largest state-owned news agency.

According to the Botometer, a machine learning algorithm trained to calculate the possibility of bot-like activity for Twitter accounts, 45 out of 51 accounts that liked the above posts showed characteristics common for fake accounts.

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                                                     Left: List of bot-like accounts from Botometer.    Right: Example of bot-like account generating traffic for the Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in Poland

Botometer classifies those accounts as “miscellaneous bots obtained from manual annotation, user feedback.” The accounts are often empty or just contain retweets of the content from Ambassador Liu. These accounts are connected by the fact that they all follow the official accounts of Chinese MOFA representatives.

Between March and May 2020, the European External Action Service (EEAS) published a series of reports demonstrating a “coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government” on social media sites like Twitter. The reports highlighted the role of bots and fake accounts posting from the PRC, positioning China on par with Russia as the main force spreading disinformation in the EU. The bots’ close ties to the Chinese MFA might support that argument, but their actual impact on the public opinion could be rather minor.

The outcome

The communication of Chinese diplomacy during the “COVID emergency” revealed that the belief in the homogeneity of the PRC’s international policies is a myth rather than a reality. The lack of coordinated response showed that the Chinese state does not always speak the same voice. The use of different platforms, campaigns, and even various sources of information pointed at the limit of the MFA’s efficiency. The only common denominator for all the posts was the increased activity during the most crucial period, but even that could have stemmed from the globally increased internet penetration rate caused by imposed lockdowns, rather than an explicit policy.

Both Twitter and the WeChat accounts of Chinese embassies facilitated the top-down delivery of certain narratives or information. They served merely as bulletin boards, with Twitter mostly employed as a tool to spread propaganda to non-Chinese audiences.

As a global platform, Twitter connects politicians and audiences worldwide and creates little space for adjusting the narratives in various geographical locations. Creating epistemic bubbles might be a tactic to bypass the nature of the platform, but it is also a weak strategy for reaching out to anyone outside the bubbles. The low quality of the campaigns and the use of dubious sources did not help the cause. Aside from a few positive examples, such as the Twitter discussion regarding racism in Spain, Chinese twiplomacy lost their chance to participate in the discussion on the European continent. Leaving the European diplomatic missions to their own devices, yet encouraging expansion of their outreach on social media, Chinese diplomacy descended into informative chaos, fueled by transposition of US-China conflict narrative practices to the European grounds.

The latest Pew Research Center survey shows that perceptions of China have worsened significantly during the crisis in eight of the nine countries covered by the survey. Due to the abundance of factors contributing to the outcomes, it is hard to measure the role of Chinese twiplomacy specifically in reputation damage control. The survey, however, supports the theory that the power of social media in agenda-shaping is still limited and public views remain shaped by the traditional media, with which the PRC is still warring. Without clear guidelines, coordinated efforts, and narratives, Chinese embassies in Europe are torn between the aggressive line promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the political culture of their host countries.

Confronted with the self-praising of the Chinese government over the fight with the virus, many Chinese who stayed in Europe were left to their own devices in finding reliable sources on migration matters. Chinese diplomacy leveraging between different platforms failed to keep messages consistent and became engrossed in the information war, neglecting their crucial mission of delivering consular information. Chinese overseas were left without consular support and stigmatized in China as well as abroad, due to the wave of resentment against Chinese people sweeping through Europe and fueled by aggressive stance of Chinese diplomacy. 

We offer our heartfelt thanks to Shu Ding for his assistance with data processing for this study.

May 25, 2021
Author
Michal Chabinski and Liang Shixin

Michal Chabinski is a MA alumni from the Transcultural Studies Department at Heidelberg University.

Liang Shixin is a researcher at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University.