Deng Fei, a renowned Chinese journalist and social activist, is conducting an interesting survey over Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. He’s asked a simple question: “What is the river like in your hometown? While celebrating Chinese New Year at home, please take a photo of your river and upload it to Weibo for us to see.”
Over the past several weeks national sentiments in China and Japan have been enflamed by activists from both countries landing on disputed islands in the East China Sea. As this battle has raged, a separate one has been held on the Chinese microblog site Weibo, which boasts more than 300 million users.
“New media enriches the style of diplomatic language, enhances innovation in discourse and displays a close-to-the-people diplomatic manner. It is a manifestation of people-oriented diplomacy”, the micro blog’s operations director, Gong Yufeng, said at the Media Salon conference organized by Renmin.com last month.
“We entered the world of weibo with an open mind, and have often been surprised by what we have found,” said a note by the embassy’s public diplomacy head weeks after the first status updates hit the “Canadaweibo” account on Chinese Internet portal Sina.com.
Diplomats in all parts of Canada's Beijing embassy are being encouraged to learn how to use China's version of Twitter. The embassy launched a "weibo" microblog account on Chinese Internet portal Sina.com in June 2011. But internal Foreign Affairs documents show that not all Canadian diplomats rushed to type out 140-Chinese character updates when the account went up.
"First and foremost, we want to show people that China is not all about censorship and political debate. People talk about movies, celebrities, social issues and even international news. We explain how Weibo’s used for many other things than just to talk about what people are eating or doing, how it's helping people, how it affects lives, how silly it can be and how it’s not that different from social networks in the West.
Westerners are savvier to the use of soft power, particularly when non-democracies such as China try their hand. The Canadian ambassador to Beijing, who put up photos of his official car online, prompted a thousand Chinese to comment on the embassy’s microblog, showing that engaging with Chinese 400 million citizens is a useful way to help achieve its foreign policy aims.
As the showdown escalated between Chinese security forces and residents of Wukan, where villagers revolted against the Chinese Communist Party, you didn’t find as much discussion of the incident in Chinese social media as you might expect. And it wasn’t only because the internet was shut off in the town.