Diplomacy in the digital age

By Liu Jianxi Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-15 0:33:01

World leaders use social media to reach Chinese

Distinct from many other visiting leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his state visit to China by publishing his first post on China's most popular social media platform 10 days ahead of time.  

"Hello China! Looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends through Weibo." The greeting in Chinese pulled in about 19,000 "likes" and was forwarded nearly 9,000 times.

"Landed to a warm welcome, followed by a spectacular visit to the Terracotta Warriors Museum," Modi shared his latest feelings on Weibo about his visit to Xi'an, Shaanxi Province on Thursday.

"From sharing updates on the workings of government, policy deliberations, his own thoughts,  and greetings and replies to well-wishers, the Indian PM's social media outreach has been lauded all over the world," the Indian Embassy in Beijing said in an e-mail to the Global Times, adding that technology plays a pivotal role in governance and policy making in the prime minister's office.

Weibo diplomacy

Modi is not the first foreign politician to join Weibo to interact directly with the Chinese public. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and British Prime Minister David Cameron have all opened accounts over the past few years.

"With an increasing number of states leaders turning to Weibo, a new era of Weibo diplomacy is coming," said Xing Yao, a researcher from the Institute for International Strategic Studies of the Party School of the CPC Central Committee.

Changes in diplomacy are unavoidable under the new media age, said Xiong Wei, vice dean of the Department of Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs Management of China Foreign Affairs University.

"These are essential for a country to build diplomatic relations," Xiong said. "Many countries, therefore, based on their own situation, have turned to digital diplomacy." 

Cameron, for instance, has more than 800,000 followers on China's Weibo. Diplomatic activities with China are most often posted by Cameron, since he opened the account in 2013. 

Meanwhile, Modi has quickly racked up more than 56,000 fans in just a week. The growing number of states leaders who are joining the 500-million-user Weibo also means China is becoming more important and has more say than before, according to Xing.

However, despite the growth of digital diplomacy, communicating directly with the public, in some cases, has its pitfalls.

Modi has been an avid social media user for years and many believe his presence on social media played a significant role during India's general election last year. Modi's overtures on Weibo drew a lot of cheers.

Many posters expressed their warm welcome and good wishes for his ongoing state visit to China. "Friendship between China and India is the cornerstone for the peace and development of Asia. Welcome to China and wish all the Indians have a happy life," wrote Weibo user Xidada999.

Modi has posted pictures of the Daxingshan Temple and Terracotta Warriors Museum on Weibo on his first day of his visit. Excited Net users have also recommended other interesting scenic spots for him. "Dear Prime Minister Modi, why not visit Baima Temple? Now that you are in Xi'an, Ci'en Temple is also a good choice," said Qixiang. Other Weibo users have shown concern on the cooperation between China and India. "I hope China and India can have more cooperation. A better China-India relationship is good for us ordinary people," a Chinese Net user posted.

Aside from the good wishes for Modi, some Chinese Net users made humorous references to territorial disputes between the two countries.

Two-way communication

These comments on Modi's Weibo page is seen no surprise by experts. "Public diplomacy features in two-way communication. While promoting their political ideas, politicians should also listen to the voice of the public, including ordinary people who don't fully understand the situation," Xiong explained.

"Social media provides a forum for criticism as well as a means of influencing public opinion. In the long term, this is healthy because it is a form of democratization that allows the public to engage directly with a political leader," said Philip Seib, vice dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism of the University of Southern California.

Political leaders should make full use of social media to build diplomatic relations and solve conflicts with other countries, according to Xiong. "The relationship between Iran and the US can be taken as an example. The determination of the two sides for more friendly talks is reflected in the friendly tweets by Iran's foreign minister."

Iran's Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif once tweeted, "We have, and are ready to make a good deal for all. We await our counterpart's readiness." "I won't engage in blame games or spin."

Thanks to social media, Zarif's friendliness has been detected by the US and eventually contributed to the relationship between the two sides, Xiong said. However, Seib warned that politicians should also exercise care when posting online. "This is not one-to-one communication, but rather one-to-millions," Seib added.

World leaders should listen to the voice of the public and try to solve their problems, according to Xing. "Communication [between politicians and the public] should be more effective," he said in an interview with the Global Times.

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