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Building a Network to "Tell China Stories Well": Chinese Diplomatic Communication Strategies on Twitter

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The phrase “tell China stories well” (jianghao zhongguo gushi) is an important guide to China’s approach to public diplomacy. Uttered by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013, this phrase is an encouragement to use China’s own communication channels to promote and testify to official Chinese views and opinions and to strengthen the international influence of China. While social media diplomacy in China is still in its infancy, the Chinese government has launched a few diplomatic Twitter accounts to develop its public diplomacy network and to post stories about China for a global audience. Using a mixed- methods approach (i.e., manual coding, computer-assisted content analysis, network analysis, and discourse analysis), we examined how the Chinese government has mobilized a small number of diplomatic Twitter accounts to build a communication network and pursue the external propaganda goals of the Communist Party of China.
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Building a Network to “Tell China Stories Well”:
Chinese Diplomatic Communication Strategies on Twitter
ZHAO ALEXANDRE HUANG
University of Paris-East, Laboratory of DICEN-IDF, France
RUI WANG
Louisiana State University, USA
The phrase “tell China stories well” (jianghao zhongguo gushi) is an important guide to
China’s approach to public diplomacy. Uttered by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013,
this phrase is an encouragement to use China’s own communication channels to promote
and testify to official Chinese views and opinions and to strengthen the international
influence of China. While social media diplomacy in China is still in its infancy, the Chinese
government has launched a few diplomatic Twitter accounts to develop its public
diplomacy network and to post stories about China for a global audience. Using a mixed-
methods approach (i.e., manual coding, computer-assisted content analysis, network
analysis, and discourse analysis), we examined how the Chinese government has
mobilized a small number of diplomatic Twitter accounts to build a communication network
and pursue the external propaganda goals of the Communist Party of China.
Keywords: China, public diplomacy, Twitter, network communication
Widespread adoption of digital devices and social media have made contemporary society more
global and networked than ever before (Castells, 2010). Individuals are not only able to disseminate
messages and interact with others in real time, but they can also participate in various forms of exchange
because of the openness of organizations and institutions. Because of their flexibility and convenience, social
media platforms such as Twitter have not only sped up organizational and institutional communication but
also enhanced connectivity, symmetrical interaction, dialogue, and engagement between organizations and
target audiences. The Chinese government has also enjoyed the communication dividends of social media,
attempting to mobilize it in the diplomatic arena. According to an official report, China’s social media
diplomacy is still in its “infancy” (F. Chen, 2015, p. 28). Our research has revealed the same. By monitoring
all official websites of Chinese diplomatic departments, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chinese
embassies and consulates in foreign countries, and Chinese missions in international organizations, we find
that only fourteen Chinese embassies and consulates abroad had officially opened Twitter accounts and that
only three Chinese diplomats were active on Twitter.
Zhao Alexandre Huang: zhao.huang@u-pem.fr
Rui Wang: rwang19@lsu.edu
Date submitted: 20181218
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2985
Analyzing the Twitter contents of two Chinese missions to the European Union and Canada, Huang
and Arifon (2018) find that the Chinese government has tried to use social media platforms to project the
“Chinese dream.” All twitter contents sent by Chinese embassies had “timid polyphonic features” (p. 51).
“Timid polyphony” is an expression referring to Chinese institutional communication practices under the
censorship system of the Communist Party of China (CPC); it is the proactive attempt by Chinese public
institutions to include various voices and opinions in news writing and storytelling. The objective is to display,
promote, and endorse specific events from diverse perspectives without violating the government’s
censorship rules. Similar to musical polyphony, in which the melodic lines of multiple voices or instruments
interweave to complement the main theme, polyphonic Twitter content creates political harmony to
represent China in a favorable way. Chinese public diplomacy practitioners intentionally bring multiple
viewpoints and voices into their Twitter content while still respecting the government’s censorship rules, to
create a tolerant, democratic, and responsible online image of a rising global power. Although Chinese
diplomatic missions and diplomats operate only a few Twitter accounts, the retweets, replies, and mentions
that redistribute content across a vast network create another form of polyphony that can help China
promote a favorable image through storytelling.
In this study, we examined the structure of the Chinese diplomatic Twitter network, the
collaborations and interactions that characterize that network, and the communicative strategies used on
the featured Twitter accounts. We explored the following questions: How does the Chinese government
manage its waixuan (external publicity) and public diplomacy? How do Chinese missions, consulates, and
diplomats use Twitter to build a communication network for “telling China Stories well and spreading China’s
Voices” (Xi, 2013, p. 2)?
Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age
Scholars from various fields (e.g., communication, public relations, international relations, and
political science) have shaped the complex definition of the hybrid term “public diplomacy,” which is
generally regarded as direct communication, initiated by a government, to “influence a foreign government,
by influencing its citizens” (Frederick, 1993, p. 229). Gilboa (2008) developed this concept by adding
nonstate actors and underlining the importance of using various communication channels to alter public
opinion in foreign nations. Public relations scholars have conceptualized public diplomacy as a long-term
strategic communication effort to build a favorable foreign public perception and national image while
achieving mutual cross-cultural and cross-border understanding and relationships (Buhmann & Ingenhoff,
2015; Fitzpatrick, 2007; Huang & Arifon, 2018).
Recent findings suggest that mass media-driven public diplomacy, an example of the one-way
communication model, is increasingly difficult to use in the social media era (Sevin & Ingenhoff, 2018; J.
Wang, 2006; Zaharna, 2007, 2018b). First, “at the core of social media technology” (Bucy, 2004, p. 373)
is interactivity, an exchange-based system of understanding that requires a “dynamic perspective”
(Henneberg, 2002, p. 95). Interactivity is an “expression of the extent that in a given series of
communication exchanges, any third (or later) transmission (or message) is related to the degree to which
previous exchanges referred to even earlier transmissions” (Rafaeli, 1988, p. 111). In the social media age,
scholars have discussed interactivity in various ways: (a) two-way communication (Rafaeli, 1988; van Dijk,
2986 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
1999), (b) personalization of information (Kalyanaraman & Sundar, 2006), and (c) technological support for
changing the medium, model, source, and message of communication (Sundar, 2009; Zaharna, 2007).
Lilleker (2015) indicated that any online click could be regarded as a replication of face-to-face conversation,
which has a certain degree of interactivity because of its experiential and perceptual nature (Bucy, 2004).
Second, highly interactive online content can heighten individual participation in specific social media topics
(Oh & Sundar, 2015). Online interaction can promote more favorable public attitudes toward the information
distributed on a network and allows individuals to maneuver across a dynamic terrain, communicating and
engaging with others in real time (Pfeil, Arjan, & Zaphiris, 2009). Therefore, interactivity can “positively
influence persuasion” (Sundar & Kim, 2005, p. 15). Third, social media offers “reciprocal symbolic
interaction” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 54), which shows “the behavior of a plurality of actors insofar as, in its
meaningful content, the action of each takes account of that of the others” (Weber, 1978, p. 26).
Accordingly, meaningful, symbolic interaction on social media strengthens social relationships.
Social media “manifest a convergence between personal communication (to be shared one-to-one) and
public media (to be shared with nobody in particular)” (Meikle & Young, 2011, p. 68). All formal
communication activities need to be connective, timely, and interactive in the digital age. As envisioned by
Deibert (1997), the evolution of communication technology created and shaped the communication
ecosystem and dynamics of international political exchange. The “two-way communication” and interactive
models are common targets of public diplomacy research. Gregory (2011) emphasized the necessity of
dialogue and interaction between nations, institutions, and people for relationship building. Fitzpatrick
(2007), and Fitzpatrick, Fullerton, and Kendrick (2013) placed relationship management at the core of public
diplomacy. Kampf, Manor, and Segev (2015) also demonstrated the potential of social media to foster
dialogue and relationship building between a country and foreign populations. Zaharna (2018a, 2018b),
using a cultural approach, argued that relationalism has become a trend in public diplomacy research and
practice. In the social media era, public diplomacy has shifted toward a network-building, development-
oriented, and relationship-focused communication model.
China’s Xuanchuan and Public Diplomacy
Public diplomacy has been at the heart of the Chinese national promotion strategy since the
beginning of Xi Jinping’s first presidential term (Q. Zhao & Lei, 2015, p. 3). Replicating the idea of the
“American dream,” Xi proposed the “Chinese dream” (Zhongguo Meng) as a guiding idea for public
diplomacy (Shen, 2015; Q. Zhao, 2018). In line with this idea, the Chinese government has looked for
innovative ways to broadcast stories about China to the rest of world. As Xi (2003) mentioned at the National
Conference on Propaganda and Ideology, China needed to “create new concepts, new categories, and new
expressions that could be accepted by both China and foreign countries” (p. 2) to serve the purpose of
duiwai xuanchuan (or waixuan, meaning external propaganda
1
).
1
The term waixuan was initially translated into English by the Chinese government as “external
propaganda.” In 2004, being clearly aware of the ideological and totalitarian connotation of the term
waixuan, Beijing rebranded the term in Englishand only in Englishto mean “external publicity” (see
Rawnsley, 2016; Sun, 2015).
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2987
Chinese scholars have disagreed with Western interpretations of xuanchuan as a dirty notion” that
underpins the restriction of public information, truncated or misleading distribution of political facts, and
even false information communicated by the government. In China, the term “propaganda” has positive
connotations, including public communication (Shi & Shi, 2007), public relations (X. Chen & Liu, 2015; Zhou,
2010), and legitimate promotion and advertising (Y. Wang, 2008). External propaganda (waixuan) includes
“all communication efforts to promote China in a positive way abroad” (Sun, 2015, p. 404). Therefore,
Chinese scholars understand public diplomacy as an extension of external propaganda. It is an invisible and
ubiquitous global communication practice that shapes China’s international image, promotes Chinese
culture, and upholds Chinese politics. Public diplomacy achieves two-way communication and interaction
with foreign audiences (Zhou, 2018). Chinese politicians have also defined “public diplomacy” in official
rhetorical terms. In the journal of Qiushithe official publication for research on CPC ideology and theory
the former foreign minister Yang Jiechi (2011) emphasized that China’s public diplomacy must be a long-
term, network-oriented approach to relationship building.
At the same time, within the communist system of government in China, all media and foreign-
related institutions“the throat and tongue of the party” (Sun, 2015, pp. 403404)must operate in line
with CPC propaganda and control. The term “gatekeeping,” according to Chinese communication theory, is
invariably related to censorship, including the self-censorship of media practitioners. At the top of the
censorship pyramid, the Department of Publicity of the Central Committee of the CPC is responsible for
public opinion censorship, communication strategies, and external propaganda rhetoric in China.
Social media usage is also subject to the paradigm of propaganda and public opinion censorship.
Both the government and the academy in China consider the Internet a “two-edged sword” (Sun, 2015, p.
409). On the one hand, international relations scholars are prudent when addressing the government’s use
of social media, repeatedly emphasizing government dominance in China’s social media strategy for public
diplomacy (X. Li & Wang, 2010). In line with this idea of “government dominance,” the responsibilities of
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China are “to release information about important
diplomatic activities . . . [and] organize public diplomacy activities” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s
Republic of China, n.d., para. 9). On the other hand, Chinese communication scholars are more optimistic
about the use of social media, encouraging government institutions, particularly embassies and news
agencies, to create Twitter and Facebook accounts to enhance and extend international communication and
to engage and interact with foreign audiences (F. Chen, 2015; X. Chen & Liu, 2015).
Building Networks on Twitter
When communication technology (e.g., social media) and public diplomacy coexist in a social
environment, the integration of information resources, institutions, and audiences (Hayden, 2013) creates
a network that can build relationships and promote interaction. According to Cooke and Lawrence (2005),
this network is similar to “institutionalized social relations which entails making a choice to be connected
across recognized boundaries” (p. 1). It is a new communication channel in which the production,
exchange, and strategic use of information play key roles (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). In other words, network
communication builds internal structures of exchange, fosters relationship dynamics among network
members, and promotes cocreation of content.
2988 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
Therefore, investigating the application of network communication to public diplomacy requires
attention not only to network structure but also to communication dynamics. Zaharna (2014) regarded a
network based on the Internet and social media as an organizational structure in which online connectivity
and interactivity result in “collaborative initiatives,” including information, narrative, knowledge, and
innovation (p. 222). The network-building characteristics of Twitter also result in collaborative initiatives.
First, the basic functions of Twitter establish a virtual communication structure. Second, the connectivity
and interactivity made possible by Twitter facilitates widespread message dissemination.
Twitter networks consist of users and the connections and exchanges that occur when users
retweet, mention, or reply to each other (Cha, Haddadi, Benevenuto, & Gummadi, 2010). Users can
retweet to show endorsement, raise the visibility of original tweets, amplify and spread thoughts, start
conversations, and validate the views of others (boyd, Golder, & Lotan, 2010). Mentions, in particular,
epitomize a high level of interactivity and engagement, enabling users to converse directly with each
other. Although retweets, mentions, and replies establish network relationships using Twitter handles
(i.e., @username), the hashtag function facilitates network building using common topics and shared
interests. Hashtags (words or phrases preceded by “#”) allow publics to index and access larger
conversations across the Twitter network.
If the text, images, videos, and URLs featured in tweets construct and circulate meaning,
hashtags and mentions facilitate the intertextual connections among tweets. Bonilla and Rosa (2015)
argued that hashtags and mentions link “a broad range of tweets on a given topic or disparate topics as
part of an intertextual chain” (p. 5). This intertextuality is not only a concrete illustration of the network
structure of Twitter; it also contributes to network communication. The interdiscursive capacity of
hashtags and the interconnective capacity of mentions can capture accompanying texts and their
indexical meanings as part of a frame” (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015, p. 6). Furthermore, in an intertextual chain,
all contents and their associated elements exist within a complex network of interconnected meanings,
backgrounds, and messages (Kristeva, 2002). That is to say, the use of discourse, symbols, and images
suggest an intention (Bakhtin, 1981; Davis, 2013) to “induce social actions” (Hauser, 2002, p. 3). This
idea is consistent with the connective, timely, and interactive features of Twitter communication.
Retweets, hashtags, and replies supplement and distribute various pieces of information about a particular
topic, continually growing and empowering a cocreated discourse network of senders and receivers.
Although the Twitter platform has successfully connected users worldwide, government
institutions still have difficulty building online networks. For instance, scholars have shown that most
online followers of politicians are family members, friends, or acquaintances (Baxter & Marcella, 2012;
Strauß, Kruikemeier, van der Meulen, & van Noort, 2015). To reach a broader public and build and
maintain a diverse network, institutions and politicians must understand how to use Twitter strategically
and effectively. Previous findings indicate that social media users can expand their networks using
interactive communication with their followers, such as allowing followers to post comments or send
private messages, responding to followers’ questions, and tapping various hashtags in posts (Baxter &
Marcella, 2012; Strauß et al., 2015).
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2989
Building on the network communication approach of Zaharna (2007, 2014), we proposed research
questions and hypotheses based on three elements: network construction, collaboration and interaction on
a network, and network communication strategies. First, network construction refers to facilitating
information exchange and flow by linking individuals and organizations (Zaharna, 2007). Therefore, we
assessed how various actors performed on the Twitter network built by Chinese diplomatic agencies:
RQ1: How do Chinese diplomatic missions and diplomats use Twitter to maintain and extend the
network?
RQ2a: Who most frequently interacts with Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts via retweets, replies,
and/or mentions?
RQ2b: Which hashtags most frequently appear on the network?
Second, cooperation and interaction on the network builds relationships and increases diversity.
The effectiveness of network synergy determines the stability of network construction and the
performance of communication strategy on the network (Zaharna, 2014). A network accumulates
resources from relationship-building activities. Because Chinese state-owned media outlets have opened
Twitter accounts and participated in international communication for years, we expected that Chinese
diplomatic departments and officials would have added those outlets to the network.
H1: Chinese diplomatic departments and officials continue to build a network using Chinese state-
owned media on Twitter.
Third, in transnational networks, the combination of local roots and global links can be a source
of diversity (Zaharna, 2007). Therefore, we proposed the following hypothesis and research question:
H2: Chinese diplomatic departments and officials continue to build a network with foreign
counterparts on Twitter.
RQ3: In addition to diplomatic departments and officials, do any other user groups participate in
Chinese diplomatic communication on Twitter?
Finally, from the perspective of network strategy, we explored how networks use information to
generate credibility, storylines, or master narratives:
RQ4: How do Chinese diplomatic missions and diplomats effectively create favorable narratives about
China on Twitter?
2990 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
Method
Few scholars have explored Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts. To determine the number of
Twitter accounts held by Chinese missions and diplomats, we monitored the websites of all foreign
agencies listed on the “Missions Overseas”
2
page created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. First,
we searched for links to the Twitter accounts of relevant institutions or diplomats published directly on
these official websites. In addition, we searched Twitter using keywords such as “Chinese embassy,”
“embassy of China,” and “Chinese ambassador.” We found only fourteen accounts held by institutions
and three accounts held by diplomats. However, we excluded four of the institutional accounts for the
following reasons: (a) the cultural office of the embassy of China in Chile had not been updated since
December 21, 2015; (b) the embassy of China in Switzerland had no new posts since March 3, 2016; and
(c) embassies of China in Japan and Turkey had Twitter accounts published in languages we did not
understand.
3
Table 1 in the results section lists the profiles of the Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts we
included.
We used the Digital Methods Initiative Twitter Capture, Analysis Toolset (DMI-TCAT), and the
Twitter API to collect tweets posted by Chinese diplomatic departments and diplomats. Written in MySQL,
PHP, JavaScript, and Python, DMI-TCAT is a set of tools for retrieving and amassing tweets (Borra &
Rieder, 2014). Using Twitter’s REST API, DMI-TCAT can collect roughly 3,200 of the most recent tweets
from each Twitter account. For Twitter accounts with fewer than 3,200 posts, this method collects all
existing tweets. We collected a total of 17,372 tweets posted between August 18, 2014, and October 20,
2018 (UTC),
4
and stored this dataset in DMI-TCAT for further statistical and network analysis.
Similar to Meraz and Papacharissi (2013), we used a multimethods approach. First, we used
quantitative methods to identify influential users on Twitter. In addition to statistical analysis, we
conducted discourse analysis to understand the “systematic links between texts, discourse practices, and
sociocultural practices” (Fairclough, as cited in Meraz & Papacharissi, 2013, p. 147). We read the content
of the tweets carefully for meaning and rhetorical strategy.
Following methods used in previous studies,
5
we coded the 115 most-mentioned (i.e., 15
times) Twitter users for user type, country of origin, and location. Using Gephi (Bastian, Heymann, &
2
Missions Overseas (n.d.). Retrieved from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China
website at https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zwjg_665342/
3
Embassy of China in Japan (@ChnEmbassy_jp) posted in Japanese; Embassy of China in Turkey
(@ChinaEmbTurkey) posted in Turkish.
4
We collected tweets on October 20, 2018, using the Twitter API, which allows users to collect roughly
3,200 of the most recent tweets from each Twitter account. The oldest tweet collected was posted on August
18, 2014. Therefore, our sample spans from August 18, 2014, to October 20, 2018.
5
Meraz and Papacharissi (2013) coded the top 100 tweeters for their affiliations; Groshek and Tandoc
(2017) coded the top 100 users into three user types. In this study, we found that the account of Luo
Zhaohui (Chinese Ambassador to India) ranked 102nd and Wei Qiang (Chinese Ambassador to Panama)
ranked 107th. We still included these two accounts because we focused on Chinese diplomatic Twitter
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2991
Jacomy, 2009), we graphed the connections among relevant Twitter accounts. To discover different
content types, we downloaded a random sample of 1,000 Chinese diplomatic tweets for content analysis.
The unit of analysis was a single tweet. We used emergent coding so that all tweet topics were set by
examination of the data rather than reference to previous findings (Stemler, 2001). During our
investigation, we (a) analyzed China’s official communication strategies on Twitter, (b) identified various
content types in China’s official and unofficial diplomatic discourse, and (c) examined how these content
types contributed to China’s public diplomacy.
To build categories and improve accuracy, we coded 200 tweets together. Then we each coded
the same 100 tweets independently to assess intercoder reliability using ReCal2 (Freelon, 2010).
Krippendorff’s alpha was 0.916, which is above the minimum standard of 0.70. Then, we each coded 350
tweets separately.
Results
Among the 13 Twitter accounts we observed (see Table 1), Chinese missions and diplomats
followed three primary patterns of usage:
First, diplomats actively used Twitter to connect with other users. Although the information
released was primarily work oriented, it occasionally incorporated personal life, sentiments, and attitudes.
For instance, Zhao Lijian, a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, was the most prolific Chinese
diplomat on Twitter. His account was created in May 2010, the earliest of all the Chinese diplomatic
accounts. Zhao had sent a total of 40,526 tweets, had 202,294 followers, and was following 215,505
users.
Second, several Chinese missions used Twitter to communicate and interact with foreign
audiences and counterparts, promoting China in dynamic ways. Mission of the People’s Republic of China
to the European Union, for instance, was the most prolific Chinese diplomatic agency on Twitter. Its
account was created in September 2013 and had a much higher proportion of original tweets and online
interactions (e.g., mentions, retweets, and hashtags) than the other accounts.
Third, several Chinese diplomatic accounts used Twitter only to release information. They did not
seek to interact with foreign audiences for fear of distress and uncertainty caused by multiple voices
(Arsène, 2012; A. K. Li, 2015). For instance, the account of the Consulate General of the People’s Republic
of China in Chicago used Twitter only to disseminate information and was not following any other users.
research. Because Wei Qiang was mentioned 15 times, we set the threshold to 15 mentions, ultimately
selecting the top 115 accounts.
2992 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
Table 1. Profiles of Chinese Diplomatic Twitter Accounts.
User
Username
Total
tweets
Followers
Following
Launch
Time
Mission of the Peoples Republic of
China to the European Union
@ChinaEUMission
6451
6787
1500
Embassy of the Peoples Republic
of China in Canada
@ChinaEmbOttawa
2163
2013
211
Permanent Mission of the Peoples
Republic of China to the United
Nations
@Chinamission2un
683
13552
372
Permanent Mission of the Peoples
Republic of China to the United
Nations at Geneva and Other
International Organizations in
Switzerland
@ChinaMissionGva
908
1692
139
Embassy of the Peoples Republic
of China in the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan
@CathayPak
4647
47791
144
Embassy of the People’s Republic
of China in the Republic of the
Philippines
@Chinaembmanila
943
2848
113
Consulate General of the People’s
Republic of China in Chicago
@ChinaConsulate
272
84
0
Embassy of the People’s Republic
of China in the Republic of
Slovenia
@ChinaEmSlovenia
459
33
64
Embassy of the People’s Republic
of China in the Republic of Uganda
@ChineseEmb_Uga
124
328
33
Embassy of the People’s Republic
of China in the Republic of
Zimbabwe
@ChineseZimbabwe
24
12
11
Zhao Lijian (diplomat in Pakistan)
@zlj517
40526
202294
215505
Wei Qiang (ambassador to
Panama)
@weiasecas
580
1142
63
Luo Zhaohui (ambassador to
India)
@China_Amb_India
1569
3353
155
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2993
To explore how Chinese missions and diplomats continue to build a communication network on
Twitter (RQ1), we examined user interactions and related content connections. User interaction analysis
focused on three actions: (a) using @mention in an original tweet, (b) retweeting a tweet, and (c) replying
to a tweet. Related content connection analysis focused on the use of hashtags.
First, original tweets revealed the official attitudes and aims of Chinese diplomatic departments.
The inclusion of @mention could be considered an active attempt to interact and exchange with others.
Among tweets posted by Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts with a high frequency of original tweets (
60%), 34.67% included @mention. The Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union
used @mention most frequently; 53% of its tweets had at least one “@” symbol, followed by Permanent
Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations (49%), Embassy of the People’s Republic of
China in Canada (44%), and Permanent Mission of the Peoples Republic of China to the United Nations at
Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland (37%). The consulate general of China in
Chicago and the Chinese Embassy in Uganda had a high original content rate ( 94%) as well, but they
rarely used @mention ( 20%), confirming their cautious approach to diplomatic communication on Twitter
(i.e., more information release than interaction).
Retweeting was also an important way that Chinese diplomatic services established a
communication network. For instance, as the most productive Twitter user in our sample, the diplomat Zhao
Lijian posted 68 tweets per day on average (Max = 224, Min = 1, Median = 65, n = 3,213), 89.4% of which
were retweets. However, the reply function was not frequently used by Chinese diplomatic accounts. Only
Ambassador Wei Qiang used this function to interact with his foreign counterparts (13% of his total).
The hashtag allows all posts featuring the same hashtag to be linked. Chinese diplomatic accounts
used this method to build a polyphonic information network, fulfilling the “harmonious communication
objective” of telling favorable China stories on Twitter (Huang & Arifon, 2018, p. 43). All Chinese diplomatic
accounts used hashtags in their tweets. Our findings show that the mission of China to the European Union
had the highest proportion of tweets with at least one hashtag (n = 2,680; 83%), followed by Chinese
Embassy in Pakistan (n = 1206; 38%) and Zhao Lijian (n = 1079; 34%).
To address RQ2a and RQ2b, we identified (a) who frequently interacted with Chinese diplomatic
accounts and (b) which hashtags were most frequent. Our findings indicate that Chinese media held
dominant positions on the Chinese diplomatic Twitter network. Chinese diplomats often forwarded news
stories from the Twitter accounts of Chinese mainstream media outlets. Xinhua News Agency was the most-
mentioned account (2,034 times), followed by People’s Daily (1,253 times), and China Global Television
Network ([CGTN], 793 times). Diplomat Zhao Lijian was not only a prolific user but was also frequently
mentioned by others or himself (i.e., self-retweet, 751 times). In addition, the CPEC Portal, a Twitter account
developed by the Pakistan-China Institute, a Pakistan-based, independent, nonpartisan research think tank,
also received 430 mentions. The graph generated by Gephi displays a clear network (see Figure 1). Network
analysis uses nodes and edges to illustrate actors and their relationships. In a Twitter network graph, each
node represents a Twitter user. Each link (i.e., edge) indicates that one user mentioned another.
2994 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
Figure 1 illustrates the essential characteristics of tweets posted by Chinese diplomatic officials.
Although various embassies, consulates, and diplomats managed these accounts, most of the released
information (e.g., Chinese political, economic, and social news) were initially published by China state-
owned media outlets, such as Xinhua, People’s Daily, and CGTN. Such behavior is a result of China’s
censorship system and institutional self-censorship. Xi Jinping has insisted that “all the work of the news
media must reflect the party’s will, reflect the party’s ideas, safeguard the party’s central authority,
safeguard the party’s unity, and love the party, protect the party, and serve the party” (B. Li & Huo, 2016,
para. 15). Insofar as Xi’s requirements for “adhering to the correct direction of public opinion” and “focusing
on making positive publicity” (B. Li & Huo, 2016, para. 16) imply that Chinese media must review, verify,
and filter all news, diplomatic accounts can safely forward tweets posted by Chinese media outlets without
violating the censorship rules. At the same time, this phenomenon shows that the invisible hand of
censorship extends to the Twitter communication management of Chinese agencies abroad.
Figure 1. Top 115 most-mentioned users.
Note. Nodes = 115; Edges = 307; Spatialization: Fruchterman Reingold Layout; Size: Number of
mentions; Color: Modularity.
RQ2b addressed the frequency of hashtags on the Chinese diplomatic Twitter network. As official
representatives and spokespeople of the central Chinese government, Chinese diplomatic account managers
used #China a total of 2,047 times in the tweets we analyzed (see Table 2). They added #China to enhance
exposure to labels and topics related to their homeland on Twitter and to attract the attention of audiences
interested in Chinese issues. In addition, the hashtag #CPEC appeared frequently in tweets posted by users
located in Pakistan, including government departments, media, nonstate organizations, the Chinese
Embassy in Pakistan, Chinese diplomats, and people working in Pakistan. CPEC is the acronym for the China-
Pakistan Economic Corridor, a significant economic and social cooperative between China and Pakistan and
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2995
an example of the “all-weather strategic partnership”
6
between the two countries. Notably, only two of the
thirteen Chinese diplomatic accounts used #CPEC: diplomat Zhao Lijian and the Chinese Embassy in
Pakistan. On the one hand, this finding suggests China’s massive communication efforts to promote its close
relationship with Pakistan and the CPEC initiative. On the other hand, it indicates that #CPEC has a regional
characteristic, compared with widely used hashtags such as #China, #BeltandRoad, and #Xijinping. For
instance, #BeltandRoad was posted by 11 Chinese diplomatic users on Twitter. Because the Belt and Road
Initiative is an important geopolitical and economic development strategy of China, #BeltandRoad frequently
appeared on Chinese diplomatic tweets to promote China’s interest in cooperation and peaceful expansion.
The fourth most frequently mentioned hashtag was #XiJinping, which refers to the name of the Chinese
president. Twelve of the Chinese diplomatic accounts mentioned this hashtag when promoting Chinese
policies and Xi’s activities, speeches, and appearances.
Table 2. Top 20 Hashtags.
Rank
Hashtag
Frequency
Distinct accounts use the hashtag
1
China
2047
11
2
CPEC
584
2
3
BeltandRoad
482
11
4
XiJinping
264
12*
5
Pakistan
214
5
6
ChinaEU
203
1
7
Chinese
153
9
8
G20
108
6
9
EU
105
5
10
SouthChinaSea
98
5
11
CairoCPECsummit
95
1
12
ECTY2018
92
6
13
India
92
1
14
trade
91
9
15
Beijing
90
10
16
EUChina
86
1
17
TwoSessions
82
8
18
Panda
82
8
19
UNSC
77
4
20
ChineseNewYear
75
6
Note. * indicates the highest value in the column.
6
In the Chinese diplomatic partnership system, among 24 different types, the “all-weather strategic
partnership” is the highest level and most-important partnership type after the “comprehensive strategic
partnership of coordination” (Q. Li, 2019, p. 6).
2996 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
To test the two hypotheses and address RQ3 (i.e., collaboration and interaction on the network), we
selected the 115 most mentioned users ( 15 times) to code manually. We identified 12 user types in our
dataset: (a) Chinese counterparts, including China’s administrative departments and diplomatic services; (b)
Chinese media; (c) foreign counterparts, including foreign government departments, foreign embassies and
diplomats, international political representatives, and intergovernmental organizations; (d) foreign media; (e)
Chinese organizations (e.g., companies, nongovernmental organizations); (f) foreign organizations; (g)
Chinese experts; (h) foreign experts; (i) Chinese individual users; (j) foreign individual users; (k) social media
platforms (e.g., Twitter, YouTube, Facebook); and (l) other (i.e., unidentified users). We also coded the country
of origin and the location of the account owner. For instance, the user @CathayPak was a Chinese counterpart
(Type) from China (Country) living in Pakistan (Location). See Table 3.
Table 3. Most Frequently Mentioned Users.
Rank
Username
Frequency
Type
Country
Location
1
XHNews
2034
Chinese media
China
China
2
PDChina
1253
Chinese media
China
China
3
CGTNOfficial
793
Chinese media
China
China
4
zlj517
751
Chinese counterparts
China
Pakistan
5
CPEC_Official
430
Foreign counterparts
Pakistan
Pakistan
6
ChinaDailyUSA
407
Chinese media
China
United States
7
CathayPak
400
Chinese counterparts
China
Pakistan
8
AbdulMaan
175
Foreign individual users
Pakistan
Pakistan
9
CPEC_gov_pk
174
Foreign counterparts
Pakistan
Pakistan
10
CPEC_CSCEC
157
Chinese experts
China
Pakistan
11
Echinanews
147
Chinese media
China
China
12
CCTV
135
Chinese media
China
China
13
pid_gov
127
Foreign counterparts
Pakistan
Pakistan
14
globaltimesnews
123
Chinese media
China
China
15
UN
115
Foreign counterparts
International
United States
16
cctvnews
111
Chinese media
China
China
17
PlanComPakistan
104
Foreign counterparts
Pakistan
Pakistan
18
PTVNewsOfficial
95
Foreign media
Pakistan
Pakistan
19
DostiFM98
95
Foreign media
Pakistan
Pakistan
20
RadioPakistan
87
Foreign media
Pakistan
Pakistan
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2997
We then calculated the number of times each user type was mentioned (see Table 4). For instance,
the “Chinese media” category contained fifteen Chinese media accounts (e.g. Xinhua News Agency [2,034
mentions], People’s Daily [1,253 mentions]). The total number of mentions for users in the category
“Chinese media” was 5,327.
Table 4. Categories of Most Frequently Mentioned Users.
Type
Total mentions
Distinct accounts in this type
Chinese media
5327
15
Foreign counterparts
2178
47*
Chinese counterparts
1434
10
Foreign media
608
12
Foreign individual users
248
4
Foreign organizations
220
8
Chinese experts
181
2
Other
159
7
Foreign experts
144
4
Chinese organizations
90
4
Chinese individual users
44
1
Social media platforms
43
1
Note. * indicates the highest value in the column.
The graph in Figure 2 reflects the influence levels of different user types on the network. Based on
the results, both H1 and H2 were supported. On the one hand, Chinese diplomatic accounts mentioned 47
distinct foreign counterparts, indicating the ambition of Chinese diplomatic officials to build a broad network
of interaction with their foreign counterparts. On the other hand, these foreign counterparts were mentioned
less frequently than Chinese media (2,178 vs. 5,327), confirming again that Chinese media outlets were
the leading sources of information for Chinese diplomatic accounts.
2998 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
Figure 2. Ranking of user types by mentions.
Note. Spatialization: Network Splitter 3D Layout; Size: Number of mentions; Color: Type.
To address RQ4 (i.e., how Chinese diplomatic agencies used Twitter to tell China stories), we
conducted a content analysis. Using the emergent coding approach, we coded 1,000 random tweets into
seven categories. In this dataset, 96 tweets were “other,” and 19 tweets were irrelevant (see Table 5).
Table 5. Topics of Chinese Diplomatic Tweets.
Topic
Frequency
Percent
Chinaforeign economic & social cooperation
251
25.1%
Political relationships
205
20.5%
Promotion of Chinese culture and society
162
16.2%
China’s development achievement
112
11.2%
Other
96
9.6%
Explication of China’s domestic policy
56
5.6%
Global responsibility
56
5.6%
Press-release of Xi’s activities
43
4.3%
Irrelevant
19
1.9%
Total
1000
100%
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 2999
In the China stories posted by Chinese diplomatic officials, the most frequent topic was China foreign
economic and social cooperation (25% of the tweets). They tweeted or retweeted about how China cooperated
with foreign countries to pursue economic or social development. Using these tweets, Chinese diplomatic
officials promoted China as an advocate for free trade and international cooperation, demonstrating the
openness and sincerity of China to foreign relations. The second most frequent topic was political relationships,
which includes bilateral or multilateral relations, diplomatic ties, and military cooperation. Tweets in this
category were more politically oriented and carried a more official tone. Promotion of Chinese culture and
society was another important topic of China stories designed to increase national attractiveness: tourism
scenery, traditional Chinese culture, and the daily lives of Chinese people. Close behind was China’s
development achievement, a topic that also showed the world an attractive and thriving China.
Our content analysis (see Figure 3) confirmed that intertextuality played a crucial role in the strategy
and implementation of Chinese diplomatic network communication on Twitter. For instance, the Mission of the
People’s Republic of China to the European Union published numerous tweets on economic issues. One of its
tweets (June 4, 2018) underlined China’s motivation to encourage multilateralism and free trade with
Germany. In the image published with the tweet, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his German counterpart
Heiko Maas are shaking hands and smiling at the camera. To the left of Heiko Maas is the national emblem of
Germany. In the background are the national flag of China and the flag of the European Union. The handshake
in the photo echoes the emoji showing the Chinese flag and the German flag shaking hands in the text. This
tweet emphasized the cooperative relationship between China and Germany and between China and the EU.
Another tweet (July 23, 2018) contains an image of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. In
this tweet, a photo of Tusk and a short part of a speech are combined in an image. The photo shows a stern
gaze; to the left are the quoted words. Combined with the information in the tweet, Tusk’s speech highlighted
and endorsed China’s pivotal role in the defense of multilateralism. Another tweet (July 28, 2018) addresses
the same topic in more detail. The Chinese ambassador to the EU explains China’s plans for promoting and
defending free trade and multilateralism. The picture attached to this tweet linked to an article explaining the
official Chinese positions. In the photo, sitting on either side EU and Chinese flags, representatives are under
negotiation, further emphasizing the close relationship between the EU and China in multilateral cooperation.
Figure 3. Tweets about China–foreign economic and social cooperation.
3000 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
By analyzing this set of tweets, we found that Chinese diplomatic agencies told China stories and
conveyed the Chinese political views in a pluralistic way. First, they used the @mention function to interact
with foreign counterparts on Twitter. They also used hashtags purposefully. Although related information
was released at different times, tweets with the same theme are organically interconnected to form an
online narrative. For example, both #China and #multilateralism were used twice in the three tweets in
Figure 3.
Second, the tweets featured different types of discourse. Tweeters quoted news releases to show
the favorable and active attitude of China toward global cooperation or directly cited the words of foreign
political leaders to endorse China’s contributions. The tweets also contained descriptions of China’s solutions,
often featuring emojis that made the content more vivid and dynamic. In addition, Chinese diplomatic
agencies liberally used pictures that often contained implicit meanings to reinforce the content and increase
dissemination.
Discussion
We examined network communication on Twitter to characterize public diplomacy efforts of the
Chinese government, which runs a few diplomatic Twitter accounts to build a communication network and
promote a favorable national image. Some accounts, such as Zhao Lijian and the Mission of China to the
European Union, used Twitter actively. Diplomat Zhao Lijian, in particular, exercised less restraint,
discretion, and caution than might typically be expected from Chinese officials who speak in public or post
on social media.
In addition, we found that China’s public diplomacy was impacted by CPC propaganda and
censorship. Although Chinese missions and diplomats have interacted with various types of stakeholders
online (e.g., domestic and foreign), information distributed by Chinese media outlets has become a major
source of content because those outlets, as mouthpieces of their government, reflect the ideas of CPC and
the Chinese government. Indeed, ideology and propaganda work comprise “an extremely important mission
for the CPC” (Xi, 2013, para. 3). These findings confirm that Chinese public diplomacy practices are led by
the CPC under the “Whole-Nation System,” in which “the power structure is undeniably centralized to a large
extent” (K. Zhao, 2019, p. 172). In fact, the Chinese government has legalized this system. According to
China’s latest constitutional amendment, “the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining
feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, 2018,
Chapter I, Article 1). Moreover, under the order of Xi Jinping, China needs to uphold “the Party leadership
over all work” (Xi, 2017, p. 17). In this way, the highly centralized management system is a distinct feature
of public diplomacy in China.
Moreover, network building in the virtual world reflects international relationships in the real world.
Although Chinese diplomats have attempted to reach a broad spectrum of foreign counterparts on Twitter,
the existing relationship of “old friend” remains primary. Eleven of the top-mentioned accounts were located
in Pakistan, including the Chinese embassy, Chinese diplomats, Chinese experts, Pakistani counterparts,
media outlets, and individual users. This finding is consistent with the “all-weather strategic partnership”
between China and Pakistan, the highest diplomatic relationship level defined by the Chinese government.
International Journal of Communication 13(2019) Building a Network 3001
We concluded that China’s effort to build a robust Twitter network centers around its closest friends and
then expands outward to include other partners.
Furthermore, our content analysis confirmed that “timid polyphony” was a common practice among
Chinese diplomatic Twitter users. While CPC leadership is reflected in the political and ideological direction
of public diplomacy (Xi, 2013, 2018), public diplomacy practitioners have relative freedom to choose
strategies and content for daily communication, permitting wide use of timid polyphony on Twitter. Timid
polyphony is the use of diverse voices and perspectives to demonstrate and endorse government initiatives.
Using hashtags, mentions, and time-phased information releases, Chinese diplomats could devote single
tweets to particular aspects of China stories but link tweets across the network to form a narrative.
Despite its contributions, our study has noteworthy limitations that open pathways to future
research. First, because of language barriers, we did not analyze two Twitter accounts, one in Japanese and
another in Turkish. Therefore, our sample did not cover the entire Twitter network built by Chinese
diplomats. Considering the limited number of Chinese diplomatic accounts on Twitter, scholars should
consider including all existing accounts in future studies. Because the relationships between China and Japan
tend to be dramatic and vital, we would expect to find valuable and interesting phenomena when looking
through tweets posted by the Embassy of China in Japan.
Second, to ensure data integrity, our dataset derived from monitoring the Twitter accounts of all
Chinese diplomatic missions and diplomats. However, potential usage gaps in different Twitter accounts,
such as the extremely active diplomat Zhao Lijian, could have led to deviations in our dataset. For instance,
Zhao Lijian’s high level of activity on Twitter was positively related to a high frequency of hashtags (e.g.,
#CPEC) and mentions (e.g., @CathayPak) related to his work. On the one hand, such data deviation can
produce skewed effects. On the other hand, a skewed distribution of user activities is common on Twitter
because of super prolific users. Therefore, we could not remove such prolific users from our dataset. In
future studies, scholars should consider using relative values to measure user influence on subnetworks in
specific areas (e.g. South Asia, Europe, North America) or in the different partnership classes defined by
the Chinese government (e.g., “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” and “all-weather
strategic partnership”).
Finally, we only collected tweets posted on Chinese diplomatic accounts. In this first step of a long-
term research agenda, we focused on how these accounts actively built a communication network. In future
studies, we plan to investigate interactions and dialogues between Chinese diplomatic accounts and their
audiences on Twitter to draw a global picture of Chinese Twitter communication in service of public
diplomacy.
3002 Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang International Journal of Communication 13(2019)
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... Available relevant studies have found that China's state news media, which started having a presence on Twitter from at least 2009, are the core actors of China's PD network on Twitter (Huang & Wang, 2019;Jia & Li, 2020). China's diplomats started publishing on Twitter in 2010, but by late 2018, there were fewer than 20 active Twitter accounts of China's diplomats (Huang & Wang, 2019). ...
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