The Sina Weibo account of the Israeli Embassy in China has more than 1.91 million followers, most of whom are Chinese young people. Photo: Li Hao/GT
When Shimi Azar, a 33-year-old Israeli, began to work as an operator of the official Weibo account for the Israeli Embassy in China in 2014, he didn't expect he would work for the most popular social media account among all the diplomatic missions in China.
What's on Weibo, an independent blog that reports on social and cultural trends in China, recently released a list of the top five embassies with the largest number of followers on Sina Weibo, China's most influential micro-blogging platform. The Israeli embassy tops the list with over 1.91 million followers, which are 800,000 more than the Canadian embassy, the second on the list, and almost double that of the US embassy, which sits at No. 3.
"Most of the young Chinese people that I talk to, they know a lot of things about Israel. I'm very surprised," said Azar. "Social media can help young Chinese people to better understand what is happening outside of China."
Although he left the embassy in early 2016, Azar recalls the one and a half year of working on Chinese social media as an exiting experience.
"It's a job that gives you a lot of satisfaction. You help to promote your country in China," he said.
As more and more Chinese people, especially the youth, are relying on social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat for information and communications, diplomatic missions in China are also targeting this huge group of readership, to attract publicity and shape their image in a country which boasts over 700 million Internet users. Israel, a nation known for technology and innovation yet with a controversial global reputation, seems to take the lead in the social media race in China by winning young people's hearts.
Chinese people began to show their interest in Israel on social media around 2013. Azar believes one of the reasons is the state visit of Israel's leaders to China, which got a lot of exposure and raised people's awareness of the Middle East country.
"The first visit of Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu to China in 2013 and the visit of the late president Shimon Peres in 2014 created a big buzz in the media," recalled Azar.
"So the embassy took advantage of this buzz and created a Sina Weibo account for Shimon Peres, which was very successful and soon attracted half a million followers."
Liu Xiaoying, a professor at the Communication University of China, said it's not unexpected that Israel attracts a lot of attention on Chinese social media.
"Though Israel is not a big nation, nor a neighboring country of China, it is a country with distinctive features and it receives a lot of media attention," said Liu, adding that it has deep ties with China historically, as Jewish people first came to China more than a thousand years ago. "Even today there is a group of Chinese Jews living in Kaifeng, Henan Province. So there's a good reason that Chinese people are curious about it," Liu said.
According to the observation of Li Weijian, a professor at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and a Middle East expert, Chinese people's knowledge of Israel has witnessed an obvious growth in recent years; this is evident especially among young people. And the Israeli government is playing a very important role in this trend.
"For years, Israel has spent a lot of money increasing the Chinese public's understanding of the country, including inviting Chinese people with social influence to visit the country and providing scholarships and exchange programs to attract more Chinese students," said Li, adding that the embassy's efforts on Chinese social media is part of the whole plan, which has begun to pay off.
"Compared with the older generation, apparently young people in China have a much more positive impression on Israel," he said.
This side of the story
Li thinks Israelis have long been very good storytellers of their history and the status quo, partly due to geopolitical reasons. And as China has an increasing influence on international affairs, Israel is turning more and more to China for cooperation.
"Israel's strategy toward China has shifted from encouraging China not to be involved in Israel-related international affairs at the early phase of the establishment of diplomatic ties to expecting China to play a greater role in the Middle East," he said. "So it's especially important for them to win over the public opinion in China."
Azar recalled that the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, especially the battle in 2013, got media coverage in China and attracted public attention. Since many media reports were not pro-Israel, the embassy decided to tell their stories with the help of social media.
"What the embassy is trying to do is to change the way Chinese people think about Israel, from war to what we really are, say, start-up and innovation," said Azar.
The embassy's Sina Weibo account has published over 3,600 posts that highlight the strengths of the country, including education, culture, religion, innovation, technology, and art, attempting to present the positive aspects of the country. "We have to show our side and we get a lot of support from Chinese netizens," said Azar, adding that the majority of their followers on Sina Weibo are young Chinese in their 30s.
Localization is the key
Efrat Perri, the spokesperson of the Israeli Embassy in China, thinks that while all the diplomatic missions in China are trying to deliver their message on social media, Israel stands out by sticking to a Chinese perspective and having close interactions with the local people.
"We try to connect our posts with the Chinese audience. For example, if there's a music festival in Israel, I can post a video that the music festival sent me. That's what most embassy accounts will do," explained Perri. "But if I have a Chinese person who filmed himself or herself in that video, it will be much better, as the Chinese audience can imagine themselves in this experience. And that's what we want to do."
To turn up the momentum, the embassy opened a WeChat account in 2014, yet the number of followers is undisclosed. Perri admitted that the two platforms are very different and their work on WeChat is harder.
While WeChat is currently the most popular social media in China, Liu said because it is not as accessible as Weibo, and relies on interpersonal relationships to spread, localization is the key for diplomatic missions to win more local followers.
"To what extent should they localize to cater to the Chinese audience, and what effect they will achieve remain to be seen," said Liu.
"However, there is no doubt that diplomatic missions need social media to enhance their influence on public opinion in China, as social media has become part of Chinese people's life, especially the youth."