A month ago, Caroline Wilson was still popular in China. The UK ambassador’s savvy use of Chinese social media, and her fluent Mandarin, won her more than 13,000 followers on Weibo. But this month, what was an asset became a liability when the Chinese Foreign Ministry reprimanded her over a WeChat post in which she defended critical press coverage of China.
The incident highlights a digital divide. Chinese diplomats have free rein most of the time on Twitter to criticize local governments, as Wilson herself pointed out. But Western diplomats don’t enjoy the same freedom on the Chinese internet.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson at China’s foreign ministry, last year promoted an unfounded conspiracy theory linking the US army to Covid-19 on Twitter. And Liu Xiaoming, China’s outgoing ambassador to the UK, frequently used Twitter and local media to criticize policy decisions made by the UK government.
Ever since Weibo and WeChat launched in 2009 and 2011, scores of foreign embassies or diplomats have set up official accounts. In a country where the online space is heavily censored and major foreign news services are banned, these social media platforms have become one of the only public channels for foreign governments to explain or promote their countries’ policies. This is known as “Weibo diplomacy,” or “Wei-diplomacy.”
But while the platforms give foreign diplomats the ability to speak more freely, most still choose not to say anything “outside the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]’s frame of acceptable public discourse,” according to a 2018 report written by Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Fergus Ryan. When they do speak out, it’s created a headache for censors, who want to prevent engagement with critical content, but are wary of deleting the posts outright and creating a backlash.
“I think it is an increasingly difficult balance that platforms are trying to maintain,” Daria Impiombato, a researcher at the International Cyber Policy Centre at ASPI, told Quartz. “Not necessarily due to changes in the censorship regime, but mainly because these embassies have significantly increased the amount of sensitive posts they share on Chinese social media.”
For foreign journalists, the past few years have marked the end of “the golden age of reporting on China,” according to The Wire. Harassment and expulsions increased; new laws made it difficult for reporters to do their job. And Chinese authorities have gone after coverage they don’t like.
It’s in that context that, on March 2, the British embassy’s WeChat account posted an article (link in Chinese) written by Wilson entitled, “Do foreign media hate China?” In it, she argues that “foreign media criticizing the Chinese authorities does not mean that they do not like China.” Shortly after the article was posted, WeChat prevented users from sharing it, although it remains visible.
After that, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Wilson for an official dressing-down and condemned the article (link in Chinese) as arrogant, prejudiced, and manipulative. The statement reiterated familiar talking points in China; that free speech doesn’t mean the press can say whatever it wants, but rather that the media’s role is to promote good bilateral relations between China and the UK, and promote China’s image in the world.
It’s the latest escalation in a broader dispute between China and the UK, and more generally the West, over the two sides’ fundamentally different conceptions of free speech and a free press. In February, UK media regulator Ofcom took away China Global Television Network‘s license because it said the broadcaster is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and not the UK license-holder, Star China Media. In response, China banned BBC World News. Earlier this week, Ofcom fined CGTN £225,000 ($313,000) for the way it covered the protests in Hong Kong.
Ever since the British embassy opened its account on Weibo in November 2009, more than 70 embassies and their affiliates have also joined the platform, according to Quartz estimates. The US and UK embassy accounts are among the most popular, with nearly 4.8 million “fans” between them.
This causes problems. In 2018, the US embassy’s Weibo account published a statement from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the White House press secretary, who slammed China’s “Orwellian nonsense,” and accused the Party of imposing its political views on US business and citizens. Last year, the British embassy fought back against claims that it supported Hong Kong independence, but its post was censored on WeChat within a day. Other western embassies, including the Netherlands and France (links in Chinese), have also used Weibo to ask Beijing to release jailed citizen journalists, human rights activists, and priests.
Instead of deleting the posts or banning offending accounts, censors usually rely on more subtle techniques intended to limit engagement with the posts themselves, according to the ASPI report. For example, they might disable comments, prevent users from sharing a post, or “shadow ban,” which gives users the illusion that their posts can be seen when they are actually hidden.
Censors also highlight negative comments on foreign embassies’ posts to give the impression that they represent the view of the majority of the Chinese population. In Wilson’s case, her personal Weibo account has been flooded with comments condemning the British media, or telling the UK to mind its own business. One user wrote: “A country that is in decline should focus on its own issues, instead of pointing finger at others.”
Most embassies still keep it safe on platforms like Weibo and WeChat by posting festival wishes from their ambassadors, or by introducing their countries’ history. But amid worsening relations with China, some Western embassies are becoming more outspoken on Chinese social media—and dare we say it, undiplomatic.