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Between Centrality and Re-scaled Identity: A New Role for the Chinese State in Shaping China’s Image Abroad: The Case of the Twitter Account of a Chinese Diplomat in Pakistan

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Abstract

China’s image abroad is not anymore shaped by Party bureaucrats with no knowledge of foreign contexts and languages, nor by ideologically driven old-fashioned officials, but by an increasingly diverse network of multiple actors partnering with new players, adopting new channels of communication and continuously adjusting to local contexts, as well as proposing more and more sophisticated messages about China as a country and as an ancient civilization. This paper is aimed at assessing the activities that Chinese actors have been recently engaging in while presenting the country and spreading its cultural messages abroad, with a particular focus on the role and identity of the Chinese state [for a conceptualization of the identity of the Chinese State, see Brødsgaard (China Int J 16(3):1–17, 2018) and Heilmann (Das politische System der Volksrepublik China. Springer, Heidelberg, 2016; Red swan how unorthodox policy-making facilitated China’s rise. Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2018)]. For instance, by highlighting the adoption of innovative channels in China’s diplomatic practices, it is possible to get an understanding of the new identity of the state in communicating Chinese society and culture abroad. The author provides a theoretical framework to understand the re-scaling of the Chinese state identity, by looking at the specific case of engagement using digital media—in particular the microblogging social network Twitter—by the commercial attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. With the caveat that the empirical analysis is still preliminary, the author concludes that the role of the Chinese state in sponsoring the country’s image, or conducting “State branding”, abroad, albeit re-scaled, retains its centrality. The contribution of this paper consists in arguing that the identity of the State tends, thus, to take up different features and a more variegated character by playing at the intersection of traditional and non-traditional communication media, by increasingly relying on partnerships with local non-governmental actors, as well as by conquering different dimensions of “space” (in quantum physics, up to 11 dimensions of space (also called spacetime) have been conceived, while in bosonic string theory—a part of quantum physics—space is 26-dimensional. In this article, the understanding of “space” and its multiple declinations draws from conceptualizations proposed by quantum physicists. Spacetime as a concept has been explored by philosophers of science such as Hale (Philos Stud Int J Philos Anal Tradit 53(1):85–102, 1988), Healey (Erkenntnis 42(3):287–316, 1995), and Lam (Philos Sci 74:712–723, 2007). Brown (J Mod Lit 32(3):39–62, 2009), French and Krause (Erkenntnis 59(1):97–124, 2003), and Ney (Noûs 46(3):525–560, 2012) already worked on connections between the concept of spacetime in quantum physics and different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.), namely a virtual space, an emotional space, a metaphorical space, an interactive space, and an informal space. This pragmatic approach does not mean that the state downsizes its role and that we should think the position of NGOs and non-state actors is more relevant, but it, instead, redefines its role and reframes its participation in activities abroad by re-thinking its involvement, occupying different spaces and communicating in a more sophisticated way. The novel contribution of this paper consists in framing a theoretical approach to analyze the Chinese state presence abroad, by linking of the concept of quantum spacetime and its dimensions to that of “state rescaling”.
Vol.:(0123456789)
Chinese Political Science Review
https://doi.org/10.1007/s41111-019-00129-x
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ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Between Centrality andRe‑scaled Identity: ANew Role
fortheChinese State inShaping China’s Image Abroad
The Case of the Twitter Account of a Chinese Diplomat in Pakistan
AlessandraCappelletti1
Received: 18 December 2018 / Accepted: 23 June 2019
© Fudan University 2019
Abstract
China’s image abroad is not anymore shaped by Party bureaucrats with no knowl-
edge of foreign contexts and languages, nor by ideologically driven old-fashioned
officials, but by an increasingly diverse network of multiple actors partnering with
new players, adopting new channels of communication and continuously adjusting
to local contexts, as well as proposing more and more sophisticated messages about
China as a country and as an ancient civilization. This paper is aimed at assess-
ing the activities that Chinese actors have been recently engaging in while present-
ing the country and spreading its cultural messages abroad, with a particular focus
on the role and identity of the Chinese state [for a conceptualization of the identity
of the Chinese State, see Brødsgaard (China Int J 16(3):1–17, 2018) and Heilmann
(Das politische System der Volksrepublik China. Springer, Heidelberg, 2016; Red
swan how unorthodox policy-making facilitated China’s rise. Chinese University
Press, Hong Kong, 2018)]. For instance, by highlighting the adoption of innova-
tive channels in China’s diplomatic practices, it is possible to get an understand-
ing of the new identity of the state in communicating Chinese society and culture
abroad. The author provides a theoretical framework to understand the re-scaling
of the Chinese state identity, by looking at the specific case of engagement using
digital media—in particular the microblogging social network Twitter—by the com-
mercial attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. With the caveat
that the empirical analysis is still preliminary, the author concludes that the role of
the Chinese state in sponsoring the country’s image, or conducting “State brand-
ing”, abroad, albeit re-scaled, retains its centrality. The contribution of this paper
consists in arguing that the identity of the State tends, thus, to take up different
This paper has been partly written during my postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of East Asian
Studies (IN-EAST) and at Kaete Hamburger Kolleg at the University of Duisburg Essen, and
during my guest fellowship at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs—Stiftung
Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). I would like to thank both these institutions, and above all Xi’an
Jiaotong—Liverpool University, for the help and support received by colleagues and friends.
Extended author information available on the last page of the article
Chinese Political Science Review
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features and a more variegated character by playing at the intersection of traditional
and non-traditional communication media, by increasingly relying on partnerships
with local non-governmental actors, as well as by conquering different dimensions
of “space” (in quantum physics, up to 11 dimensions of space (also called space-
time) have been conceived, while in bosonic string theory—a part of quantum phys-
ics—space is 26-dimensional. In this article, the understanding of “space” and its
multiple declinations draws from conceptualizations proposed by quantum physi-
cists. Spacetime as a concept has been explored by philosophers of science such as
Hale (Philos Stud Int J Philos Anal Tradit 53(1):85–102, 1988), Healey (Erkennt-
nis 42(3):287–316, 1995), and Lam (Philos Sci 74:712–723, 2007). Brown (J Mod
Lit 32(3):39–62, 2009), French and Krause (Erkenntnis 59(1):97–124, 2003), and
Ney (Noûs 46(3):525–560, 2012) already worked on connections between the con-
cept of spacetime in quantum physics and different disciplines in the humanities and
social sciences.), namely a virtual space, an emotional space, a metaphorical space,
an interactive space, and an informal space. This pragmatic approach does not mean
that the state downsizes its role and that we should think the position of NGOs and
non-state actors is more relevant, but it, instead, redefines its role and reframes its
participation in activities abroad by re-thinking its involvement, occupying differ-
ent spaces and communicating in a more sophisticated way. The novel contribution
of this paper consists in framing a theoretical approach to analyze the Chinese state
presence abroad, by linking of the concept of quantum spacetime and its dimensions
to that of “state rescaling”.
Keywords Space· Spacetime· State re-scaling· Cultural diplomacy· Digital
diplomacy· CPEC
1 Introduction
The genesis of this paper lies in the Twitter account of Mr. Zhao Lijian, a Chinese
diplomat in Islamabad, Pakistan. The multiple narrative spaces that this Chinese
diplomat creates in his online presence are preliminary empirical evidence of new
expressions of the Chinese state abroad (Mr. Zhao being a diplomat, any activity
which he engages in can be considered as a manifestation of the Chinese state pres-
ence). Since a single account cannot be taken as representative of a more general
situation, this empirical evidence shall be considered as preliminary, and this paper
emphasises the proposed theoretical approach to identifying new dimensions of the
Chinese state in countries other than China, and aims at exploring the possibility to
analyze this presence and dynamics by adopting the spacial concepts of State Re-
scaling borrowed from the field of urban studies, as well as that of spacetime from
quantum physics.
The aim of this work is, thus, to adopt the concept of “state rescaling” for looking
at the presence of the Chinese state abroad. I consider the dynamism and multiple
angles of analysis that the concept in itself allows as particularly fit for the purpose
of looking at new expressions of the Chinese state presence abroad. The paper is,
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Chinese Political Science Review
thus, aimed at making a theoretical contribution, and putting forward an exploratory
empirical analysis. The next step in this research will consist of framing a frame-
work for a systematic analysis of individual social media accounts directly or indi-
rectly related to Chinese diplomats.
Chinese leaders, officials, and bureaucrats, as well as other Chinese actors within
China and abroad, are well aware of the challenges which the country is facing
within the international community. In a world where representation, image, and
culture are considered effective tools of foreign policy, China has to cope with a
series of issues when dealing with foreign counterparts, namely the concept of
human rights, an authoritarian political system, unfair competition in trade and
economic relations, and an ongoing environmental crisis. In many cases, funda-
mental misunderstandings are at stake, from the side of foreign audiences, due to
a still scarce knowledge of Chinese society and politics.1 The Chinese government
is making important efforts and allocating substantial budget to activities abroad,
including engagement with media and the organization of events and debates con-
ducive to reshaping and renegotiating an identity which, up to now, has been per-
ceived as dangerous and “other”, creating misunderstanding and incomprehension,
on the part of foreign audiences. In this context, while the country is busy finding
ways to avoid the middle-income trap by achieving the challenging task of upgrad-
ing its economic system, as well as to reach the international standing the Chinese
leadership thinks it deserves, one of the most interesting and effective channels of
communication, and evidence of state re-scaling, is the use of social media by state
actors who have the aim of spreading Chinese culture, and substantiating Chinese
presence and influence, abroad. The content and speed of communication of digital
tools, especially social media, is particularly challenging for state actors in terms
of management and control, mainly because the publication sequencing, as well as
speed and range of information diffusion, are different from those found in media
based on the traditional communication patterns. While, within China, the Party
manages to control online communication by banning Western social media2 and
allowing access only to those platforms which are permitted within the Chinese web
(such as Weibo, WeChat, and Douban), Chinese actors are free to use digital media
abroad, but, at the same time, need to adjust to the communication tropes of differ-
ent cultural and political contexts. As a consequence, the political space available for
Chinese actors abroad is larger than at home, and more room is also available to deal
with local players in foreign countries. To be convincing, persuasive, and influential
1 With “scarce knowledge of Chinese society and politics” in the Western audiences, I mean to highlight
that, aside from the increased understanding of China as a civilization and culture among academics,
scholars, and politicians, the image that Western think tanks and media often convey for the general pub-
lic consists of a misrepresentation of Chinese society and politics, in some cases, due to political reasons
and specific tensions (an example of such a misrepresentation is Benner etal. (2018), published when
the European Commission was discussing the possible granting of Market Economy Status—MES—to
China), such as in the current trade conflict between the USA and China. Moreover, a number of Chinese
academics who write about China are often considered to be “image-polishing actors” sponsored by the
Chinese government, with their reputation and credibility called into question.
2 Which can be accessed with a Virtual Private Network (VPN), whereas available.
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while communicating with external audiences, Chinese actors need to re-position
their identities in different socio/political spaces abroad, and, through hybridiza-
tion and localization,3 conceive new State branding strategies. This said, contrary
to the image of China that international media normally convey—a stiff and inflex-
ible political system oppressing its people and run by kleptocrats—the Chinese state
shows a significantly high degree of resilience in allowing its actors to interact with
international audiences according to their own independent judgment. By adopting
the concept of “state rescaling”, the author will look at the Twitter account of a Chi-
nese high-profile diplomat in Pakistan, and delve into the different ways the Party
perceives, presents, and “camouflages” itself.
2 State Re‑scaling andCultural Governance4
Systemic reorganization of the Chinese state presence in cultural and media circles
abroad, aimed at gaining influence around the world, has been conceived and imple-
mented for at least 1 decade. This phenomenon can be still considered recent, and
thus, a strictly quantitative sociological analysis is not yet possible, but a qualitative
approach based on the identification of new spaces abroad can help us get an under-
standing of the new patterns of influence of the Chinese state abroad. The topics of
state rescaling and cultural governance can be framed within the context of globali-
zation studies: researchers, particularly since the early 1980s, have worked out a
variety of methodologies meant to challenge the ‘iron grip of the nation-state on the
social imagination’.5 This wide-ranging effort to transcend traditional state-centric
epistemologies arguably represents one of the unifying theoretical agendas underly-
ing contemporary research on globalization. Loretta Lees, in her studies of “global
gentrification”,6 shows the multiple characters and variegated nature of state inter-
vention in reshaping rural and urban areas around the world, highlighting that “the
relative omission of the state and the focus on individualization does not aid con-
ceptualization of the relationship between lifestyle and consumption and the state
today—the role of the state is much more significant”.7 In this paper, I take into a
particular consideration the concept of “space” and its dimensions, taking inspira-
tion from space dimensions in quantum physics and linking this concept with “state
rescaling”. To better understand these concepts and their interlinkage it is important
to consider an online account (being it Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media)
as a limited and encircled space, but containing dimensions which differ in terms of
size, thickness, density, and so on.
4 For the concept of “state rescaling”, see Brenner (2004); for “cultural governance”, see Schmitt (2011).
5 Taylor (1996), quoted in Brenner (2004), p. 29.
6 Lees (2016).
7 Lees (2016), p. 100.
3 Characteristics and challenges of hybridization at the institutional level are extensively explained in
Schildt and Perkmann (2016), while the concept of localization is analyzed in Acharya (2014).
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Chinese Political Science Review
The rescaled presence of the Chinese state is, thus, understood in terms of dif-
ferent dimensions of space, in a new perspective which the author puts forward as
the innovative contribution of this paper. “State rescaling” as a concept originates
from an idea which has been put forward in the field of urban studies by a variety of
authors, with the role of the state being re-assessed and re-evaluated under the light
of the new policies and dynamics affecting urbanization and globalization. This does
not mean that state actors play a minor role, but that they reframe themselves and
their identity on the basis of new conditions and inputs. Considering the state as a
mimetic body which adjusts itself according to outside settings is resilient to harsh
environments, and is adaptive enough to survive change and to respond to unex-
pected shifts, in the context of this paper, we will make an effort to reply to this
overarching question: how is the authoritarian Chinese state coping with the ever-
changing configurations and the increasing challenges to China’s image abroad, in
particular to regional and local variations? New technologies and global connections
as well as different political environments and social systems abroad do not allow
Beijing to enforce policies and regulations aimed at information control, social engi-
neering, and cultural–political management such as those implemented at home. The
network of Chinese and non-Chinese players organising activities on China abroad
is highly differentiated and easily avoid abiding by the usual practices which they
would need to respect within China. These multiple and structurally differentiated
socio-political and economic systems include actors with diverse and sometimes
contrasting agendas, perspectives, and backgrounds.
These new configurations are not easily controlled and managed, even when the
involvement of Chinese state actors is important. When these actors act as the main
promoters and sponsors, there is a higher possibility that all the players involved
abide by practices commonly accepted within China. On the other hand, foreign
non-state actors are bearers of different ideological and operational patterns. Never-
theless, the degree of resilience of the central government—mainly the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, which is in charge of conceiving, sponsoring, and promoting official
initiatives abroad—and of those Chinese actors involved, seems to be high, espe-
cially when there is a connection with the “operational space” of non-governmental
and non-Chinese actors. The main idea is in this case that of a government allowing
a space abroad which is not provided domestically.
It is then controversial and questionable to discard all actors projecting, and deal-
ing with, China’s image outside of China as government agencies, instruments of
the Chinese state, and carriers of its main narrative, whereas it is also not accurate to
label any kind of official activity related to China as mere propaganda.8
In this context, we cannot say that the role of the Party in Chinese activities
abroad is downscaled, but rather re-scaled. My assumption is that the Party retains
its major role as a site, medium, and agent of contemporary China image restruc-
turing,9 and keeps a striking relevance as a major locus of knowledge production
8 International media as well as academic circles often propose, and are victim of, this perspective.
9 This argument is linked to the production of knowledge and the construction of a “Chinese culture”
suitable to be projected abroad, as per the construction of a Chinese cultural infrastructure and cultural
diplomacy.
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outside of the traditional boundaries of the nation. The roles of those Chinese actors
involved in state branding activities abroad are constantly adjusted, as well as tuned,
according to the new external inputs and shifting conditions, and to the necessity of
responding to domestic challenges. These transformations have unfolded at diver-
gent speeds and in diverse political–institutional forms within each national con-
text, leading to highly variegated socio-spacial and political outcomes at national,
regional, and local scales. What is, indeed, needed is to re-conceptualize geogra-
phies of state space as they are being transformed at various geographical scales in
the context of the current Chinese cultural projection abroad, with state institutions
still playing the crucial roles of mediation and facilitation.
The author, thus, argues that the Chinese government’s responses to the changing
international environment and to new expectations of Chinese people in terms of
China’s role and image in the international arena have re-designed the landscape of
Chinese statehood abroad in a number of quite fundamental ways. For the moment,
they can only be analyzed across multiple national contexts by looking at evidence
for such an underlying structural transformation of state spatiality. In this paper,
Pakistan, a key country in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, is taken as a
focal point, while other areas where China is an important stakeholder in domestic
economic patterns, even in the midst of otherwise persistently diverse institutional
frameworks and regulatory geographies, are intended objects of future research.
Multiple ramifications for the interpretation of contemporary Chinese statehood and
the projection of Chinese culture abroad emerge from the study of these contexts.
While, in the realm of cultural governance an effort of selection, codification, and
promotion aimed at an “engineered” knowledge construction is being made, restrict-
ing the possibilities for endorsing and channeling a “different” culture, looking at
state branding gives the impression that a looser approach is adopted and that more
space is allowed. This said, the overall emerging picture is that of a Party which is
trying to better control which kind of Chinese culture is being promoted abroad,
but, at the same time, is rescaling its presence and granting more space for expres-
sion to different actors. No matter how much space is allowed, these actors will still
only be able to convey an already selected set of concepts and knowledge to foreign
audiences.
2.1 Cultural Infrastructure andCultural Diplomacy
The importance of cultural promotion abroad can be traced back to China’s mythi-
cal past,10 while continuity can be seen in the ways which China is presented to
the world by the leadership of post-1949 China. Nevertheless, with the Xi Jinping
10 Meaning to the Shang Dynasty, when list of the local specialities of other countries appears in the
written records. During the Zhou Dynasty, the list of names of the gifts given to the King of the Zhou by
the 62 countries is reported, and linguistic studies on the oracle bone scripts illustrate the different names
of “giving gifts to the kings by neighbouring regions or nations”. The gifts include slaves, animals, agri-
cultural products, shells, jades, and so on. There are also linguistic studies on the practice of borrowing
names of musical styles from neighbouring cultures and nations.
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Chinese Political Science Review
administration, we are apparently facing a new stance. The main idea is that it is
now time for Chinese policy makers to assert the importance of Chinese culture not
only domestically—where power seems to be consolidated—but in an international
perspective. Reframing concepts and reconceptualising geographies of state space
through a “cultural infrastructure”, thus, become top items in the agenda of the Chi-
nese leaders.
I use the word “infrastructure” to represent the dynamic and ever-changing net-
work of actors and policies encompassing the broad concept of transmission of
Chinese culture abroad. The expression “cultural infrastructure” is an umbrella
covering a wide range of geographical (tangible) and conceptual (intangible) net-
work of actors. These networks are structured around physical (confucius institutes,
associations, diplomatic venues, and schools), virtual (digital ventures), and concep-
tual spaces (such as publications, events, and conferences). “Cultural diplomacy” is
included under the broader umbrella of “cultural infrastructure”, and can be defined
as the set of government-sponsored, organised, and led activities, carried out by pro-
fessionals paid and specifically trained to popularize selected aspects of the national
culture abroad, with a clear foreign policy agenda in mind. What is being dissemi-
nated through this specific official channel varies across cultural contexts, for exam-
ple in Muslim countries—for instance in Iran and Pakistan11—it is not uncommon
to see events on Chinese culture promoting Uyghur culture as the Chinese national
culture.12 This phenomenon could be conceptualized as “appropriation of minority
culture”, and could be directly related to the foreign policy agenda of the Chinese
leadership, which aims at highlighting commonalities between Chinese culture and
Muslim countries’ cultures.
Cultural activities conducted by networks of differentiated actors with pro-
grammes varying on the basis of the respective identities and strategies, and ini-
tiatives aimed at encouraging dialogue and mutual understanding among cultures
in the direction of helping society coping with the challenges of globalization and
migration, are also under the cultural infrastructure umbrella. These initiatives can
be ideated and realized by a variegated range of actors, Chinese and not Chinese,
committed to encouraging dialogue, intercultural communication, and the under-
standing of Chinese culture, mainly in response to specific societal challenges, rang-
ing from a better integration of Chinese communities abroad to an effort to enhance
intercultural communication and improve mutual understanding. These cultural and
social activities rely both on the partial involvement of the Chinese government and
on that of non-governmental actors.13 While conducting cultural diplomacy entails a
clear foreign policy agenda, we need to consider that this kind of cultural diffusion is
often initiated and implemented by actors with their own agendas and goals, which
11 Xinhua (24th August 2016), in the case of Pakistan pictures of related events are available online in
the websites of the Chinese Embassy and of the various “China–Pakistan” friendship associations.
12 This kind of cultural appropriation is not uncommon in countries characterized by a national majority
and a large number of minorities such as China.
13 The share of government involvement defines also the degree of government influence on the related
activities.
Chinese Political Science Review
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are not necessarily in line with those of Chinese foreign policy. The conceptual ideas
behind the initiatives, and the people involved in the project and implementation
phases, as well as in the outreach efforts and aim setting, shape the very nature of
the initiatives themselves.
The cultural infrastructure is organised around networks of actors with a multi-
plicity of identities, and the “Suggestions”14 entail this kind of geography (quote):
“It is important to explore new patterns of international dissemination and
communication of Chinese culture, combining different tropes: dissemina-
tion through the broader audience, local communities and interpersonal rela-
tions, entailing the realization of a pattern of dissemination of Chinese culture
which is poly-centric, multi-level and interdisciplinary. (…) Through overseas
Chinese and Chinese nationals, celebrities in the field of culture and sport, as
well as any person who goes abroad for any kind of purpose, as well as rely-
ing on Chinese diplomatic missions, companies and those organisations which
friendly cooperate with China, as well as through the broad network of Chi-
nese restaurants scattered around the world, we should tell the good stories
about China, disseminate the good sounds of China, explain the good Chinese
characteristics, presenting a good image of China.”
The verb chuanbo 传播 is used for the concept of “disseminating”, and it means
also “propagate” and “broadcasting”, marking a shift from the traditional use of
xuanchuan 宣传, a term with a derogatory meaning from a Western perspective,
since it is rendered in English as “propaganda”. Goujian 构建 is adopted for “build-
ing” and it refers to the construction of something abstract (for instance: qiaoshili
goujian 巧实力构建, “the construction of smart power”), quan fangmian 全方位 is
used for “poly-centric” and duo chenci 多层次 and kuan lingyu 宽领域 for “multi-
level” and “multidisciplinary”, respectively. Zhonghua wenhua chuanbo geju
华文化传播格局 is used for “patterns of dissemination of Chinese culture”. The
adjective hao is used with a particular emphasis and it means “good”, while
xingxiang 形象 is employed for “image”, in sentences dealing with China’s image
abroad. We can, thus, notice an effort to adjust the semantics and the terminology,
probably signaling an attempt to fine-tune the communication strategy according to
foreign audiences’ receptiveness.
Chinese culture is, thus, proposed abroad through a multi-centric infrastructure:
while state actors avail themselves of a broad network of organised venues and loci
from where messages on Chinese culture are spread, not following a casual geog-
raphy, but the economic and political interests of the Chinese state, foreign non-
state actors follow a less identifiable pattern. Chinese non-state actors follow both
patterns, the more strategic patterns as well as the casual ones.15 Foreign non-state
14 See Cappelletti (2017).
15 We can find schools of Chinese language or martial arts in locations where there is not any eco-
nomic interest towards China and on the side of China, but simply where local schools or families want
to include Chinese language in the curriculum or where, for some reasons, martial arts are particularly
popular.
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Chinese Political Science Review
actors related to Chinese culture are located instead in those places where there are
cultural or business interests for China, but not necessarily where China has inter-
ests. In synthesis, we can say that this geography of actors is mainly distributed
along economic, political, and cultural lines following a multi-centric pattern, and at
a first sight, the idea could be that what is at the center, namely in Beijing, is repro-
duced abroad. The expression “multi-centric” fits well into the context of the poly-
centric mode of governance as it is explained by Scholte (2008). Moreover, it has a
connection with the history of China and the tributary system.16 There are of course
major changes in the current vision of the Chinese leadership, the main one being
the idea of projecting what can be attractive for foreign audiences by re-scaling the
role of the State17 and showing resilience in multiple locations.
This infrastructure is, indeed, flexible, because Chinese state actors follow and
implement the main recommendations coming from Beijing, at the same time con-
ceiving and adjusting their policies to local contexts, culture, and expectations. At
the same time, a well-planned activity of networking is pursued to receive sugges-
tions and hints from local actors and conceive the related cultural policies aimed
at implementing at the local level what has been suggested and according to local
characteristics. This approach makes the diffusion of Chinese cultural messages
abroad a flexible and always re-negotiable process, which changes responding to the
expectations of the officials in charge, as well as of the local population. This flex-
ible approach is less evident with Chinese non-state actors not needing to conduct
actions of image reshaping, and, since they are not directly associated to the Chinese
government, they follow their own agenda. The same can be said for foreign actors.
3 Digital Diplomacy
One of the most interesting examples of the re-scaling of Chinese state actors’
presence abroad can be found in the World Wide Web. While, on one hand,
engagement in digital diplomacy can represent the attempt by a state to channel
messages to foreign public opinion and to exert influence via the social media, it
also represents a relatively new system for providing and obtaining information
about China and Chinese cultural activities abroad. Digital diplomacy, intended
as a means to “amplify traditional diplomatic efforts, develop tech-based policy
solutions and encourage cyber-activism”,18 can be considered an important aspect
of China’s smart power, and the multiple potentialities of digital communica-
tion fit very much into the strategic agenda of the Chinese government, which
is currently encouraging its actors abroad to find new channels of communica-
tion to promote Chinese culture, as well as to construct an intangible or abstract
16 See Hevia (1995) on the Macartney embassy and the tributary system. A neo-tributary perspective in
Chinese IR has been theorized by Pan and Lo (2017) to understand China’s current global standing.
17 See the related following paragraph.
18 Bjola and Holmes (2015), p. 38.
Chinese Political Science Review
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“infrastructure” (see the concept of goujian 构建, “to construct something in the
abstract sense”) for content dissemination. Bjola and Holmes (2015) argue:
“By searching for recurring themes in Facebook profiles and Twitter chan-
nels operated by foreign ministries, one is thus able to gain insight into how
countries portray themselves to the outside world in general, and to specific
foreign publics, in particular.
The digital infrastructure is the quintessence of an abstract/intangible infra-
structure, and its power consists in:
1. multi-locality and multiple outreach;
2. exposure to foreign cultures;
3. engaging with the audience;
4. speediness in reaching the target audience;
5. broad outreach;
6. flexibility and resiliency in terms of content and outlook;
7. communication immediacy;
8. adoption of social media listening tools;
9. possibility of making use of different kinds of multimedia material;
10. possibility of projecting simple and inspiring messages.
These characteristics represent the perfect combination of what Chinese state
actors would like to implement as part of efficient communication strategies
aimed at reshaping the image of China abroad. The concept of an “infrastructure”
still surfaces as a key one: three parallel infrastructures—physical, conceptual,
and digital—work together on different and equally relevant levels both to shape
and spread selected cultural contents.
A relevant example of the process of state re-scaling is the use of social media
used in Western countries, and censored in China, by Chinese officials abroad whom
make use of such media to communicate with foreign audiences. They engage with
a multiplicity of actors adopting different language and communication codes, dif-
ferentiating their messages on the basis of the platform which they are using and
of its target users. These new communication channels, including dedicated web-
sites, social media, specialized platforms, multimedia content with a fancy outward
appearance and incisive and synthetic messages, online chat programs and forum,
as well as any other kinds of digital tools aimed at spreading content, is adopted
especially by Chinese state actors abroad, who acknowledge the power of these tools
for reshaping a country’s image in a relatively short time period. Since 2014, every
Chinese Embassy abroad has a Facebook page through which information about
China’s current affairs, events, and initiatives, as well as any kind of “politically cor-
rect” content, is channeled to a broader public who can start engaging with Chinese
state actors via digital channels. The digital tools are then recognized as an offi-
cial infrastructure for disseminating information and conducting cultural diplomacy,
tools included into the broader communication strategy together with the more tradi-
tional offline channels such as universities, cultural institutes, and events.
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Chinese Political Science Review
4 Chinese Culture inPakistan
The relationship between Pakistan and China draws back to ancient times,19 when
Buddhist monks migrated from India and found their way to China’s Western
regions, a broad area which includes the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,
Gansu, and Qinghai Provinces, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, and borders
with today’s Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Eastern Central Asian Republics. At the
moment, Pakistan is more than a strategic ally for China, it is actually the coun-
try which will determine whether China’s westwards ambitions—framed into the
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—will end in a triumph or in a failure. Moreover,
the access to the Indian Ocean through the port of Gwadar, on the South-Western
coast of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, would allow Chinese mega-ships
and goods to follow an alternative route and to avoid the Malacca Strait—which is
under US influence and is still an obligatory maritime corridor for Chinese prod-
ucts exported Westwards. Due to these strategic underpinnings, the Chinese govern-
ment has a deeply rooted interest in Pakistan being politically stable and economi-
cally wealthy, and able to perform as a key player in the relations between China
and India, as well as to control and manage the Islamic fundamentalist movements
within its borders, as well as—through its political connections and security ser-
vices—in Afghanistan and in other Southern and Central Asian countries involved
in the BRI. The major Chinese projects in the country are being realized in the fields
of infrastructure and energy, and are framed under the umbrella of the China–Paki-
stan Economic Corridor (CPEC),20 implemented at the government-to-government
level, but still expected to yield additional economic activity and investment oppor-
tunities for actors in the private sector.
These projects have the potential to redesign power relations in Pakistan by ben-
efitting and compacting the large majority of different interest groups in the country.
By sharing the generated wealth, conflicts of power could be avoided and the suc-
cess of the initiative could be foreseeable. At the same time, Islamabad is working
on the realization of a major transformation of its economic system according to
the document “Pakistan2025 One Nation-One Vision”,21 which includes informa-
tion about politics, economics, and the role of a leadership whose ultimate goal is to
transform the country into one of the ten largest economies in the world by 2047.22
Ranked 131st out of the 141 countries listed in the Global Innovation Index 2015
report—which explores the impact of innovation-oriented policies on economic
growth and development—in the 2018 Global Innovation Index Pakistan jumped to
the 109th position. While the region has the potential to lead the world as it has the
intellectual capital and the talent, politics and security are still important hurdles.
20 Wang (2016a, b) and Ma (2015a, b) provide an interesting overview on the project from the Chinese
perspective.
21 http://www.mopdr .com/visio n/uploa ds/visio n/pakis tan_visio n2025 .pdf.
22 Jaffrelot (2015) and Zaidi (2015) are recent publications providing a general but in-depth overview on
Pakistan’s economy, politics, and society.
19 For a historical and analytical overview of China–Pakistan relations, see Small (2015).
Chinese Political Science Review
1 3
CPEC in general would push Pakistan up, as global trade agreements would encour-
age transfer of technology, which would increase competition and innovation; and
some global firms, like Robert Bosch GmbH and Volvo, have already entered the
Pakistani market for security logistics and transportation, while some existing com-
panies like China Mobile, which have a strategic edge, are planning to be major
communication partners. For instance, the 820-km-long Pakistan–China fibre optic
cable project from Rawalpindi to Khunjerab was completed in June 2018 at a cost of
$44 million, adding a digital component to the overall CPEC project.
4.1 Actors inCharge ofConveying Chinese Culture inPakistan
The main actors involved in the Chinese cultural infrastructure in Pakistan are as
follows:
the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad;
the Chinese Consulate in Karachi;
Chinese universities with partnerships with local universities;
four Confucius Institutes (CI) and one Confucius classroom;
associations in charge of academic exchanges;
around 700 small, medium and large scale Chinese companies currently working
in Pakistan and investing in various sectors, including the China–Pakistan Eco-
nomic Corridor (CPEC)—a number which is likely to grow in the future;
the Pakistan–China Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCJCCI);
organizations in charge of business forums;
think tanks23;
Chinese and Pakistani Singers (a Duet Sang in Urdu and Chinese in Gwadar Port
Inauguration Ceremony in November 2016);
the Sino-Pakistan Media Alliance;
tourism operators;
museums—there is a plan to establish a museum within the next 3 years in
Peshawar, while a “Pakistan Museum” and an Urdu language center would also
be set up in China. The organization Cheng Mu works in the sectors of culture
and tourism development, promotes cultural exchange visits between Pakistan
and China, exchange visits as well as the establishment of a Chinese Aesthetic
Museum and a language learning center in Peshawar;
job market—recruiting agencies.
In Pakistan, there are currently four Confucius Institutes, located in the premises
of the following universities:
23 Among the others: Pakistan–China Institute (http://www.nihao -salam .com/); R.A.N.D.I (Research and
Development International); Pakistan–China Institute (http://www.pakis tan-china .com/); China–Pakistan
economic corridor (http://www.cpeci nfo.com/insti tutio ns); China–Pakistan Joint Research Centre on
Earth Sciences.
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Chinese Political Science Review
1. National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad (established in 2007).
2. University of Karachi, Sindh province (established in 2013).
3. University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Punjab province (no date available).
4. University of Punjab, Lahore, capital city of Punjab province (no date available).
One Confucius classroom24 is located in Muzaffargarh (Punjab province). South
Punjab is infamous for being a hotbed of extremism,25 thus setting up a classroom
in Muzaffargarh is an interesting and brave move. To a question about major inflow
of Chinese investment in Punjab under the CPEC or business-to-business groups,
the answer from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce was that Punjab is a big mar-
ket with over 100 million people and its infrastructure and inter-city connectivity is
much better than in other provinces. Confucius Institutes are usually the result of
a partnership between a Chinese and a local university, which sign an agreement
for the establishment of the CI in the foreign university. The Confucius classroom
in Muzaffargarh represents an exception; however, since it was established not in
a university but in an association called DX Council, which in Chinese is called
Muzhafaerge duanbo shouting julebu 穆扎法尔格尔短波收听俱乐部, the name of
a private club, while the Chinese Institution is a TV channel called guoji tai 国际台.
The agreement was signed on the 12th September 2008.
If we take a look at the map of the projects related to the CPEC, we notice that
Faisalabad, Lahore, and Muzaffargarh are all located along the Peshawar–Karachi
Motorway (Multan–Sukkur Section), also called the Eastern Route.26
4.2 The Commercial Attaché attheChinese Embassy inIslamabad
Mr. Zhao Lijian is the commercial attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad
in Pakistan, and has a very dynamic and vibrant Twitter profile. He is a very pecu-
liar diplomat basically for his unique use of “digital diplomacy” and his Twitter27
account, which is constantly updated. Mr. Zhao knows the local culture very well,
and for this reason, his original Twitter account name was Muhammed Lijian Zhao.
The Muslim name was adopted to make Twitter users in Pakistan feel a certain affin-
ity with him. Mr. Zhao, being a non-Muslim coming from a culture alien to mono-
theism, was probably advised to delete the Muslim name from his Twitter account,
because a non-Muslim adopting a Muslim name without being converted can be
26 The proposed Motorway: Length: 392km, Project Name: Peshawar–Karachi Motorway, Project Title
(Section): Multan–Sukkur: 392 km, construction/development of 6-Lane access controlled motorway
having total length of 1100km. Tolled facility. Status of Project: Commercial Agreement Signed Decem-
ber, 2015. Execution 1st quarter 2016, Work in Progress Completion of Early Harvest Project 2017/2018
Responsibility: Proposing Agency: Ministry of Communications Implementing Agency: National High-
way Authority Supervising Agency: Ministry of Communications, Government of Pakistan.
27 An extensive analysis on the connection between Twitter and diplomats can be found in Sandre
(2013).
24 Courses of Chinese languages provided by a Confucius Institute in another location, usually foresee-
ing the establishment of a new CI.
25 Burke (2015).
Chinese Political Science Review
1 3
perceived as offensive by Muslims. “Muhammed” was deleted and now the account
is under the name of Lijian Zhao 赵立坚, @zlj517. The tweets posted by Mr. Zhao
show a certain knowledge of online tools, social media strategy, and content cura-
tion. The account is updated daily, and the contents have a broad degree of differen-
tiation, and are interesting and engaging for the audience. A smart use of multimedia
content, like videos and pictures, is noted in Mr. Zhao’s account. His knowledge of
more advanced digital skills such as pinning posts to the top, hashtag use, mention-
ing, and re-tweeting is relevant, while his posts show careful selection and varia-
tion of different types of contents: information on the CPEC projects’ progress; data
on CPEC economic and financial issues; figures on the number of jobs created in
Pakistan by the CPEC; information on bilateral university and educational activities;
information on positive spill over effects of the CPEC in the Pakistani economy;
analysis and papers on the project; messages on people’s engagement in the pro-
ject, including bilateral cultural and social initiatives; statements by Pakistani and
Chinese politicians; information on CPEC-related transparency and accountability
mechanisms; information at the corporate level; images of the former Amb. Sun
Weidong giving presents to Pakistani politicians, like calligraphy and traditional
Chinese paintings; information and pictures on mosques and the culture of China’s
Islamic populations; scholarships available for Pakistani students who want to study
in China.
He has a deep understanding of the inherent benefits of the Web 2.0 revolution
for digital diplomats, including the assistance and speed (albeit not necessarily reli-
ability) in connecting them with the wider public during their postings, to listen to
how policies are perceived or received on the ground; of how bilateral relations are
understood, if at all; how to project and disseminate unmediated information about
the values, beliefs, and actions of their home countries; among others.
He practices knowledge management, which is not just about collecting, storing,
and analyzing data, but rather controlling strategically what information is shared to
the public, creating an important link between knowledge management and public
diplomacy.28 This is viewed as a key benefit of ICT and other information systems,
and, at least potentially, allows the efficient handling of vast amounts of informa-
tion (and subsequently, and arguably, knowledge). The advent of new web technolo-
gies included in the “Web 2.0”, such as Facebook, Twitter, and so forth, has spurred
much attention in how states are able to disseminate information to particular con-
stituencies and groups abroad. From a public diplomacy perspective, then, the goal
of utilizing ICTs, or digital diplomacy strategies, is the production, dissemination,
and maintenance of knowledge that helps to further state interests. Humanisation
of the country is a process undertaken by Mr. Zhao simply by exposing himself
through the web.
Direct answers to questions on the human rights situation in China, especially
concerning religious freedom, the treatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and of prisoners,
28 Many controversial issues are related to the CPEC, as land reclamations along the project corridors
and the fact that part of the infrastructures and pipelines entailed by the project cross the North Eastern
region of Gilgit Pakistan, where border definition is still an issue for India and Pakistan.
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Chinese Political Science Review
are provided with timeliness. Official statements of concern on the Dalai Lama visits
to India are also posted.
4.3 The Twitter Account ofMr. Zhao Lijian—Lijian Zhao 赵立坚, @zlj517
Studies of Twitter29 profiles and accounts related to political communication are
relatively recent.30 What is evident from the Twitter profile of Mr. (Muhammad)
Lijian Zhao @zlj517 is that an umbrella space encompassing a multiplicity of
spaces is created, and it including a virtual space, an emotional space, a metaphori-
cal space, an interactive space, and an informal space. In this part of the paper, I pre-
sent Tweets which have been chosen following a random sampling method through
a process which “continues until the research reaches the point of saturation—that
is, the point in the research when all major categories are fully developed, show
variation, and are integrated” (Corbin and Strauss 2008, p. 135). I thus randomly
selected the Tweets by following a Grounded Theory Approach,31 a rather dynamic
methodology which puts emphasis on the research material in itself and, in this case,
allowed the Twitter messages themselves to generate the semantic categories which
have been identified to classify them.
The Chinese diplomat avoids on purpose the creation of an intellectual space,
which would encourage reflection and would engage followers with memories and
past events. His Twitter account is continuously updated, followers show their will-
ingness to be engaged, and the speed of communication is high. These characteris-
tics do not encourage reflection. Mr. Zhao has been a Twitter user since the 8th of
May 2010. He is based in Islamabad, and from his Twitter profile picture, we can
see that he is Chinese and likely Han Chinese. The caption under his picture has
changed several times. While, at the beginning, the profile sub-heading was: “Fol-
low me to get news about China and CPEC. Based in Chinese Embassy in Pakistan”,
it has now changed into: DCM, Chinese Embassy. “Seek knowledge even in China”.
“Chinese are awaking from heavy sleep. Fresh springs are bubbling forth from Him-
alayan heights”. The website of the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan is also mentioned:
pk.chineseembassy.org/eng/.
From the website of the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, we can get a number of
pieces information: he was the Chargé d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Islama-
bad, and has now been promoted to China’s Deputy ambassador. Behind the profile
information, as a background image of the account, there are two large pictures of
the two Pakistani policemen killed during the terrorist attack against the Chinese
Consulate-General in Karachi on the 23/11/2018.32
According to Twitter Analytics, as of the 27th March, 45,695 Tweets have been
sent from the account, it was following 162,448 accounts, and users following Mr.
32 While two Pakistani policemen and three terrorists have been killed, no Chinese citizens were killed
or injured during the attack.
29 For more about Twitter as microblogging service, see Kwak, Lee, Park, Moon (2010).
30 Yeste and Franch (2018), LoPiano (2018), Zafiropoulos etal. (2014).
31 Glaser and Strauss (1967).
Chinese Political Science Review
1 3
Zhao account were 192,500. 85% are Tweets with @mentions, 41% are Tweets with
#hashtags, 83 out of 100 were re-tweets by @zlj517, 29 on 100 are Tweets with
links, and 4 on 100 are Tweets with media. The most linked domains are twitter.
com, www.cpeci nfo.com, nation.com.pk, epaper.thefinancialdaily.com, www.pscp.
tv, xhne.ws. Twitter clients’ usage is identified as a Twitter for iPhone. The busiest
times turn out to be 8 in the morning and 7 in the evening.
Speeches by Mr. Zhao are reported, and one of them, dated 09/09/2015, has been
pronounced in occasion of the launching ceremony of “Salaam Confucius”:
“Cultural exchange is an important part of the all-dimensional China–Paki-
stan relations. Undoubtedly, people-to-people contact and mutual understand-
ing are the basis of the good relations between countries and I believe cultural
exchanges could play an instrumental role in this regard. Only when people
from our two countries really understand each other, we can truly respect each
other, support each other and integrate with each other. This will in turn trans-
lates into the solid basis to support and sustain our ever-lasting friendship and
cooperation and help achieve the China–Pakistan community of shared destiny
at early date.”
In another report dated 01/09/2015 and titled “Chinese Foreign Minister Extended
a Message of Condolences to Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security
and Foreign Affairs of Pakistan” we read: “On the same day, Chargé d’ affaires of
Chinese Embassy Mr. Zhao Lijian met with Dr. Rizwan Naseer, Secretary General
of Pakistan Red Crescent Society, and passed on the urgent relief donation on behalf
of the Red Cross Society of China to the Pakistan Red Crescent Society.” The author
knows a number of his followers, since they are European analysts, portals on con-
temporary Chinese economy and politics, Chinese universities including the Chi-
nese University of Hong Kong, Australian and American China experts, Pakistani
politicians, Western and Chinese scholars, US journalists, and an Indian journalist.
Andrew Small, author of the book “China–Pakistan Axis” (2015), is among his fol-
lowers. Mr. Lijian Zhao shows a rather sophisticated ability to use Twitter, and on
the 8th December 2018, he writes: “A 4-year-old girl from Shanghai is daughter of
a Chinese engineer working in Pakistan. Mommy said that Daddy is building a big
road for the local people. Daddy sacrificed our little family to help lots of people.
Her dream is to see Daddy and the big road”. Attached to the tweet and re-tweeted,
there is an official video by AirChina originally posted on YouTube. Another recent
post reads: “Gwadar: The rise of a phoenix in the desert. As starting point of CPEC,
Gwadar offers tremendous opportunity for investors home and abroad. @CathayPak
@ChinaDaily @CGTNOfficial @PTVNewsOfficial @WorldPTV @CPEC_Offi-
cial @RadioPakistan @PlanComPakistan @betterpakistan @KhusroMakhdum”
(12/12/2018).
On the 14th of October 2016, Mr. Zhao fixed a tweet to the top of his Twitter
feed: “Too dazzling to believe: this is on September 25. A Chinese ship named
Tianfu docking at Gwadar. Gwadar will receive many more ships like it”.33 Tianfu
33 The texts of the Tweets are reported in Italic as they appear online, which means that possible spelling
errors and slang expressions are not corrected by the author. The account name of the commercial atta-
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Chinese Political Science Review
is written 天福 and it means “celestial happiness”. Two pictures are enclosed; one
shows a megaship arriving at Gwadar harbour, escorted by a smaller ship during
the night, with striking lighting, while the other shows the same ships moored at the
harbour port and some white SUVs going towards them. At the time (14/10/2016),
this single tweet had 384 re-tweets and 466 likes (the like button on Twitter is in the
shape of a heart). In the official CPEC page homepage, there is a Twitter box includ-
ing all the tweets by Mr. Zhao.
In another tweet, a link to the official page of the China–Pakistan Economic Cor-
ridor is included under the caption: “1 out of 16 in Balochistan”. It probably relates
to the visit of the Parliamentary Committee of CPEC’s visit to China, and numbers
the related projects under the CPEC umbrella. On the website, several public diplo-
macy actions are listed: “The Silk Road Economic Belt: Xinjiang Karamay Forum”,
Mushahid34 addresses ChinaEurasia Forum in Urumqi: CPEC flagship project of
new Silk Road promoting corridors and connectivity (23rd September 2016). There
is a picture of Mushahid talking to an audience from a podium, and at his back
there is a banner where there is written “Second edition of the China-Central Asia
Publishing Expo and Import–Export” (dierju Zhongguo-Zhongya chuban bolanhui
churu jingjian yanjian 第二局中国-中亚出版博览会出入境检验检). In the slid-
ing banner, there is also a notice about the 2nd Annual Meeting of the SiLKS at
Warsaw:
“Delegates from 30 countries, representing more than 50 think-tanks are pre-
sent in Warsaw, Poland for the 2nd annual meeting of the Silk Road Think
Tanks Network, commonly known as the SiLKS. The $46 billion China–
Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is under speedy implementation, with a
sizeable proportion dedicated to the overhaul of transportation infrastructure
to efficiently connect Khunjerab on the Chinese border with Gwadar Port on
the continental shelf of South Asia and Persian Gulf. It must be noted that
President Xi Jinping is present in Warsaw for his state visit of Poland, and has
also addressed the Silk Road Forum, appreciating the joint efforts of all mem-
bers in making OBOR a project of converging interregional interests. Senator
Mushahid Hussain, who holds charge of Pakistan’s Parliamentary Commit-
tee on CPEC, is diligently guiding the bilateral project through the process of
implementation which will facilitate the materialization of the larger One Belt,
One Road initiative”.
There is a reaction by a user called munir @dr_munirkhan who says, address-
ing Muhammed and another user (a Pakistani politician called Ahmed Quraishi), “Is
this 1 project out of those 8 main projects in Balochistan?”. Quraishi then writes:
ché appears as (Muhammed) Lijian Zhao when the tweets were written under this account name, and as
Lijian Zhao when the tweets were written under the new account name.
Footnote 33 (continued)
34 Mushahid Hussain Syed is a Pakistani politician who serves as a member of the Senate and the Chair-
man of Senate’s Committee on Defence, in office since 2012. Previously, he served as a member of the
Federal Cabinet.
Chinese Political Science Review
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Schools in #Balochistan along #CPEC route. This one completed in 10months.
History is making as landscape changing”. He incorporated a tweet by Muhammed
with four pictures of a brand-new female children school which says: “Small and
beautiful-1st project completed under CPEC is in Balochistan (Part II): School land
donated by a local citizen, built in 10months”.
Relevant information is provided on Mr. Muhammad Lijian Zhao account on
a daily basis, for example, on Saturday, the 15th of October 2016 at 09:08 a.m.
Rizwan Hussain @RGwadari writes to Muhammad Lijian Zhao “sir when work will
start on Gwadar international airport and east bay expressway”, and the answer
comes 2h later (a timely answer for social media interaction standards) and is “Pre-
liminary work has been going on. Feasibility study, design, etc. They shall be inau-
gurated the end of this year or beginning of next year”. The core information in
this case is that “works” for the construction of the Gwadar international airport
shall start between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. Another tweet states
that “ChinaPakistan Government Primary schoolnow operational in record
10months and inaugurated in Gwadar”. The included hashtags are #InclusiveDe-
velopment and #CPEC4Pak. The fact that it is often not possible to find this kind of
information in the media or other sources is remarkable, and, thus, shows that social
media are becoming a valuable source of information and data collection not only
for journalists and analysts, but also for researchers and scholars. Sometimes, twit-
ter is also used for service alteration communications, such as when a Twitter writes
to the commercial attaché that he has just sent an email to the Chinese Embassy in
Pakistan and it bounced back, Zhao answers “Thx for your reminder. I will tell the
person in charge”.
Another interesting element is that (Muhammed) Lijian Zhao is actually engaging
in sensitive and off-limits topics with his Twitter followers. An example would be
this Tweet: “Mr. Zhao we don’t need Help and Charity. We r ready to be partner in
Development that is fairly negotiated with #Baloch not only by #Islamabad and he
answers Balochistan government is well on board. It was represented in the CPEC
Joint Cooperation Committee. It was a national project. Issues like the Diaoyu
islands and potential Chinese prisoners working in the constructions sites.”
salma jafar @Chiltan is writing to Zhao and to @qissakhwani: “I didn’t know
CPEC has schools???” on the 13th of October 2015. And Zhao answers in the same
day by saying “CPEC is for the well-being of all the people in Pakistan. It has not
only power plants and roads, but also schools, colleges, hospitals”. On just the same
day, but earlier, he had written “Small and beautiful1st project completed under
CPEC is in Balochistan (Part I): Gwadar friendship school, cute children, cute
school!!!”. Four pictures dated 8th October 2016 show classrooms with teachers and
children during lessons, the furniture, the school, and happy children.
Someone asked Zhao “wat abt Pak–China institute Islamabad? Located at blue
area Islamabad”, in reaction to a previous tweet by Zhao in which he wrote “Where
to learn Chinese? 4 Confucius Institute in Pakistan: NUML, Karachi Uni, Punjab
Uni, Agriculture Uni. in Faisalabad. More in pipeline”. All this on a single day, the
3rd of October 2016, and thus, we might assume that Mr. Zhao is spending a rather
high share of his time online writing on social media. He shows that he cares about
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Chinese Political Science Review
his followers, their questions, and their concerns, and he is ready to answer to any
kind of criticism or reaction.
@UsmanAcd asks “Sir is there any uni in KPK?” and Zhao answers “For sure. A
China Study Center has been established in Peshawar University. It will become one
of the best in China studies”. The messages are oversimplified, since Twitter, like
the majority of social media platforms, does not accept long posts. Moreover, Twit-
ter followers expect short and catchy messages, showing a high degree of interaction
and public engagement, such as the ones listed here below.35 Different dimensions
of space are occupied: a virtual space, an emotional space, a metaphorical space, an
interactive space, and an informal space. The majority of Tweets pertain to different
spaces at the same time, but, nonetheless, make an effort to categorize, considering
the primary meaning of the message contained in the related Tweet.
As in quantum physics, where there is a multiplicity of dimensions of space-
time,36 the Twitter account of Mr. Zhao Lijian can be defined as a discrete37 space
encompassing a series of dimensions. The random sampling selection of Tweets
allows me to define a relatively small number of preliminary categories or space
dimensions, which have been identified according to the content, the writing style
and character, the generated reactions, the replies to the reactions, as well as the
writing style and character of those reactions and the whole thread of tweets. As
already mentioned, the contribution of this paper is rests primarily on a theoretical
level, and this collection of empirical data must be considered strictly preliminary
as it is not yet structured, and is subject to future adjustment, i.e., is an exploratory
exercise to pave the way for a more structured design for data collection, analysis,
and interpretation. The very nature of the adopted grounded theory approach helped
me in the process of “making the Tweets speak for themselves” and generating the
following preliminary categories.
4.3.1 Interactive space38
“Chinese Ambassador in Pakistan Yao Jing shared his view on how to counter
propaganda against Belt and Road Initiative and CPEC. Find it out yourself in this
interview”. @CGSS_Pakistan @ForeignOfficePk @CathayPak @XHNews @CGT-
NOfficial @PTVNewsOfficial @WorldPTV (8/12/2018, the video of the interview is
enclosed).
35 Tweets are not classified by content/message, nor analyzed through coding but left as they appear in
the analyzed account on purpose, to provide an idea on the variety of messages and meanings conveyed
through the microblogging platform in a random pattern, as well as to provide an understanding of the
different spaces of the Chinese State.
36 In quantum physics, up to 11 dimensions of space (also called spacetime) have been conceived, while
in bosonic string theory—a part of quantum physics—space is 26-dimensional. In this article, the under-
standing of “space” and its multiple declinations draws from conceptualizations proposed by quantum
physicists. Spacetime as a concept has been explored by philosophers of science such as Hale (1988),
Healey (1995), and Lam (2007). Brown (2009), French and Krause (2003), and Ney (2012).
37 Meaning “non continuous”.
38 Tweets intended for creating spaces of interaction between the Twitter user and followers.
Chinese Political Science Review
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“A media meeting was held btw CN economic net and the council of PK newspa-
pers editors to discuss media cooperation btw two countries to promote the CNPK
Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing CN”. @zlj517 @CathayPak @XHNews (re-
tweeted on 12/12/2018, pictures of the event are enclosed).
“More foreign students are opting for China as it is best destination of educa-
tion. The cost of living is comparatively less in China. Chinese society is stable and
friendly. These elements encourage foreign students”. @ZamirAhmedAwan1 @
CathayPak @ChinaDaily http://www.china daily .com.cn/a/20181 2/11/WS5c0 f2661
a310e ff303 29053 d.html … (12/12/2018).
“China has many students in International Islamic University and other colleges.
There are a number of universities in China teaching Urdu” (tweeted on 13/10/2016
under the account Muhammad Lijian Zhao).
“#CPEC open to all countries: Chinese envoy. #CPEC has received interest from
countries in Central Asia, Middle East, and Europe” (re-tweeted on 07/03/2017
from CPEC Official).
4.3.2 Metaphorical space39
“Chinese ambassador Yao Jing talked about Conflict and cooperation in South Asia
and role of major powers such as CN #BeltandRoad intiative is a Economic develop-
ment, prosperity and regional connectivity projects including #CPEC CNPK Islam-
abad PK”. @zlj517 @CathayPak @adamgarriereal (re-tweeted on 12/12/2018, pic-
tures of the event are enclosed).
“CPEC is moving on its fast track and there is growing demand to learn Chi-
nese language, culture, economy, etc. This year, even more students will apply to
Chinese universities. China graduates are guarantors of success of CPEC”. @
ZamirAhmedAwan1 @ChinaDaily http://www.china daily .com.cn/a/20181 2/11/
WS5c0 f2661 a310e ff303 29053 d.html … (12/12/2018).
“#CPEC will increase Pakistan’s regional importance: President Mamnoon Hus-
sain40” (re-tweeted on 08/03/2017 from CPEC Official).
“China invested $50bn+ in Belt&Road project since 2013: NDRC41 Flagship
project #CPEC in implementation phase” (re-tweeted on 08/03/2017 from CPEC
Official).
“ChinaPakistan Relations have become a model of State to State Relations”
Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan (re-tweeted on 08/03/2017 from Emerging
Pakistan).
39 In this case, Tweets contain representations of situations which imply a shift in meaning. In this way,
a “Chinese social space” is created, and the organization of the communication environment and activi-
ties is aimed at making the audience feeling comfortable. Valuable insights on metaphorical space can be
found in the writings by Ilana Friedrich Silber, in particular Silber (1995).
40 12th and present President of Pakistan.
41 National Development and Reform Commission, agency under the Chinese State Council which has
broad administrative and planning control over Chinese economy.
1 3
Chinese Political Science Review
We aspire to bring Regional Pivotal Role of Pakistan into full play for Common
Development”China Ambassador to Pakistan (re-tweeted on 08/03/2017 from
Emerging Pakistan).
Mr. Iqbar quoted Mr. DENG XIAOPING’s words, a good cat is a cat to catch
mouse, no matter it is white or black” (re-tweeted on 06/03/2017 from Jong Khan).
“Experts have termed PakistanChinaRussia nexus as ‘scenario-changer’ for
South Asia” (re-tweeted on 05/03/2017 from Radio.gov.pk).
4.3.3 Informal space
but Mr Zhao Chinese will learn Urdu bcz Both have same interactions @zlj517
(re-tweetwd from @Ahmad___Hussain on 13/10/2016 under the account Muham-
mad Lijian Zhao).
Dear @zlj517, any possibility to include Pakistani work-force in these projects,
as I’ve noticed, mostly Chinese companies and personal working”.
“PAKCHINA media friendship association’s function for bilateral friendship”
(re-tweeted on 03/03/2017 from Jong Khan).
Debt is not always bad thing. It is not debt that is problem, but debt management
and use which are real concerns” (tweeted on 05/03/2017).
“NPC spokesperson Fu Ying questions the claim that China’s defence spend-
ing growth is a threat to other countries: “Of all the conflicts, even wars that have
inflicted so many causalities and damages, and left so many homeless in the past
decades, which one was caused by China?” (re-tweeted on 04/03/2017 from Peo-
ple’s Daily).
4.3.4 Virtual space42
Zhao: “China and Pakistan workers are working together. Thar block II and Hubco
are China-Pak joint venture. Thousands of Pakistani people are there” (Twit-
ter conversation between Muhammed Lijian Zhao and the Twitter user Ahmad
Hussein—13/10/2016).
ChinaRadioInternational interviews Mustafa Hyder43 on importance of China’s
NPC and CPPCC Annual Session” (re-tweeted on 08/03/2017 from PakChina
Institute—featuring a picture with the interview excerpt: “China is motivated to
engage other developing nations into its growth, and the prospect has been wel-
comed by states in East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, as well as Eastern and West-
ern Europe”44).
42 An online, computer-based simulated environment populated by users who can simultaneously and
independently explore the representation of China proposed by Mr. Zhao—which is virtual but meant to
correspond to the offline one—participate in its activities and communicate with others.
43 Executive Director of the Pakistan–China Institute.
44 Another interview excerpt is posted: “China’s commitment to world peace is reflected by the fact that
the Chinese government has not interlinked Belt and Road cooperation with military ambitions, thereby
changing the global trend by purifying economic growth from military aggression”.
Chinese Political Science Review
1 3
“#Historic_day 4 Pak Civil Works at Dasu Hydropower Project of 4300MW
started today by China Three Gorges Corp” (re-tweeted on 09/03/2017 from Ch.
Amjad Farooq).
“Ishrat Husain45: CPEC debt burden on external account should not exceed $3.5b
($910m paid by Pakistan+$2.4b by Chinese companies) annually” (tweeted on
05/03/2017 and pinned to the top).
The Belt and Road Initiative Scholarship 20172018 at Sichuan University of
China Application period: March to May” (tweeted on 05/03/2017).
“#PPP senator presses #govt to build consensus on #CPEC” (re-tweeted on
07/03/2017 from Daily Times).
“#CPEC has very transparent mechanism. Govt of Pakistan is not holding a
single dollar of #CPEC investment” (re-tweeted on 03/03/2017 from Planning
Commission).
“#CPEC has created 13,500 jobs for locals so far, and the number is increasing:
Chinese Envoy” (re-tweeted on 06/03/2017 from CPEC Official).
“Universities urged to develop skills for #CPEC, as HEC46 presses on need for
CPEC research” (re-tweeted on 06/03/2017 from CPEC Official).
“PTCL,47 China Telecom Global to establish optical fibre network in Pakistan”
(re-tweeted on 08/03/2017 from Times of Islamabad).
ChinaPakistan Collaboration entails: 1. Gwadar Port 2.CPEC 3. Energy and
Infrastructure and Industrial CooperationChina Envoy to Pakistan” (re-tweeted
on 08/03/2017 from Emerging Pakistan).
Belt and Road will benefit Afghanistan; ambassador says” (re-tweeted on
06/03/2017 from China Daily).
Peshawar and Quetta are not playing against each other today they will jointly
fight against enemies of peace and will definitely win” (re-tweeted on 05/03/2017
from the user Hamid Mir).
4.3.5 Emotional space48
@CaptMX: “1700 Chinese prisoners are building one of the project for #CPEC.
Clever China, good HR management #coal #sahiwal #criminals in #Pakistan”.
Muhammad Lijian Zhao: “Nonsense. Chinese workers are working on Sahiwal
project on 3 shifts 24/7. Sahiwal speed is even faster than those projects in China”.
45 Ishrat Hussain is a renown Pakistani banker and economist who served as the dean of the Institute of
Business Administration and the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.
46 Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission.
47 Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited.
48 An interesting insight on emotional space as a semantic space with different dimensions can be found
in De Sousa (2007), pp. 383–387, where a connection between emotions and colors is established and
helps interpreting the emoticons’ colors in an emotional perspective. The diplomatic performance of
identity conveying emotions in Twitter, as well as his personal and direct involvement in the situations
depicted in the messages which he conveys through language, channel emotions to followers, whom,
in the interactions, respond with emotional messages themselves (for an understanding of emotions in
diplomacy, see Hall 2015).
1 3
Chinese Political Science Review
@Iamچوھدری @CaptMX “he is an indian Raw agent operating fake account to
misguide people of Pakistan” (Twitter conversation between Muhammed Lijian
Zhao and the Twitter user Ahmad Hussein—October 11th–13th 2016).
“#CPEC to open new Era of development and prosperity for #Pakistan and
#China. INSHALLAH.” #UpRisingPakistan (re-tweeted on 07/03/2017 from Atif
Mateen Ansari).
“#CPEC projects are engaging people into economic transformation at the
grassroots of Pakistan” (re-tweeted on 07/03/2017 from CPEC Official).
ChinaPakistan Friendship is deeply rooted in the hearts of our Peoples”Chi-
nese Ambassador to Pakistan (re-tweeted on 08/03/2017 from Emerging Pakistan).
Baloch Culture Day restores confidence of Balochistan that there is peace and
harmony, and CPEC will not disrupted” (tweeted on 05/03/2017).
5 Conclusions
The author, thus, argues that the Chinese state is taking over, at the same time and for
different purposes, a multiplicity of space dimensions. The main ones are a virtual
space, an emotional space, a metaphorical space, an interactive space, and an infor-
mal space. This means that the Chinese state presence is, indeed, increasingly sophisti-
cated. What happens within these spaces—the agenda setting, targets and how they are
achieved, what knowledge is being adopted and how those in the space experience it—
is still determined by state actors. NGOs and other actors, thus, still play a minor role,
since the communication towards foreign audiences is still monopolized by state actors.
This paper’s contribution is primarily theoretical, with some preliminary empirical
testing, and it opens the way to future research which could further test the proposed
theoretical perspective. We reconnect here the two concepts of “space” and “state res-
caling”. As already mentioned, spatial analysis of state presence has been successfully
conducted by scholars in the field of urban studies. The dimensions of space which the
Chinese Party is occupying have not been considered nor analyzed in the literature,
and the overall idea behind this article fits into the theorization of the reorganization
of the state presence. Dealing with an ongoing process implies the impossibility of
freezing the ideas put forward here within static concepts; therefore, the –ing form of
the continuous tense (i.e., re-scaling) helps us in catching the multiple dimensions of
space which are of interest to this study, and getting an understanding of the multiplic-
ity of spaces which is being generated. While events and exhibitions about Chinese
culture and civilization organised by Chinese state actors abroad have up to now been
characterized by an evident and obvious physical presence of the Party (via flags, ban-
ners, videos, slogans, decorations, the presence of officials, and cadres), the gradually
increasing interest in online platforms and social media, as well as the high poten-
tial of these platforms to effectively reach out a broad audience, offer these actors the
opportunity to seize more and more sophisticated dimensions of space.
The analysis of how power is operationalized in the spaces of online platforms,
and the exploration of how the experiences of those within the Twitter space are
shaped by online posts, can be objects of future research, taking the Twitter account
of Mr. Zhao Lijian as a focal point. With his Twitter account, the diplomat creates a
Chinese Political Science Review
1 3
participatory multidimensional space which gives netizens the impression of being
able to play an active role in decisions made at a strategic level in relation to wider
contexts, in this case the Chinese presence in Pakistan and the activities related to
the CPEC. What we can learn from Mr. Zhao’s account is that Chinese diplomats
and government officials understand that working on the processes of knowledge
construction through the most advanced communication channels is fundamental to
make people explore and interpret patterns through guidance, in the specific context
of China’s image projection abroad. This is why, we can reasonably argue that the
channels of Chinese public diplomacy are increasingly sophisticated, carried out by
a variety of actors and networks, through a multiplicity of communication channels,
and that they support the Chinese government’s goals of foreign policy. Knowing
how digital communication, as performed by Chinese actors, works, can help us in
getting a deeper understanding of China’s rise and of the multiple ways which China
presents itself to the world. By altering the conventional patterns of diplomatic inter-
action and introducing new meanings, digital diplomacy emerges as a communica-
tion strategy which has the potential to challenge the very nature of traditional diplo-
matic practices, with important implications for the constitution and distribution of
relations of power in international politics.
Given the limited empirical contribution, the intent of the paper is mainly to
provide a theoretical framework which could be tested through additional future
research into manifestations of the Chinese state presence abroad in the different
dimensions of space. Physical spaces of the Chinese state (architectural elements
and building sites) as well as the offline presence via events or meetings could also
be taken into consideration in future work.
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Alessandra Cappelletti Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at Xi’an Jiao-
tong Liverpool University and member of the Board of Directors and Senior Researcher at the Italian
Research Centre on Contemporary China, Dr. Cappelletti has a Joint Postdoctoral Degree at the Institute
of East Asian Studies (IN-EAST) and at Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Research Center for Global Cooperation
of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, and a PhD in Asian Studies at the Oriental University
of Naples and at Minzu University of China (double degree). Alessandra was visiting Research Fellow at
the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik-SWP) and
a consultant for the Sino-German Poverty Alleviation Program Xinjiang. Among the others, she studied
and conducted research at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Beijing Normal University, Free University of
Brussels, Aristotelous University in Thessaloniki, Xinjiang University, Shihezi University and Kashgar
Teachers’ College. Alessandra’s research interests are focused on Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia,
Belt and Road Initiative, agricultural development and agribusiness in North-West China, Muslim com-
munities in China. She published book chapters, scientific articles and analysis for, among the others,
Routledge, Springer and the Baillet Latour Chair of European Union – China Relations and the EU-China
Research Centre. Her monograph on socio-economic development in Xinjiang is going to be published
by Palgrave in autumn 2019.
Aliations
AlessandraCappelletti1
* Alessandra Cappelletti
Alessandra.Cap@xjtlu.edu.cn
1 Department ofInternational Relations, Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University, Dushu Lake Higher
Education Town, Suzhou Industrial Park, Ren’ai Road 111, Suzhou, China
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