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Digital Diplomacy: These Foreign Embassies Are Most (Un)Popular on Weibo

‘Weiplomacy’ is here; Weibo and other social media platforms are a tool for government public diplomacy purposes. What’s on Weibo gives an overview of Weibo’s most (un)popular foreign embassies.

Manya Koetse

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As social media has become an increasingly common tool for government public diplomacy purposes, a large number of foreign embassies in China now has a presence on Sina Weibo to engage with local audiences. As Weibo diplomacy a.k.a. ‘Weiplomacy’ is becoming more important, What’s on Weibo gives an overview of Weibo’s most (un)popular foreign embassies.

Digital diplomacy is a hot topic. Embassies all over the world increasingly use social media as a low-cost and convenient tool to promote their countries, inform people about their latest activities and engage with their followers.

Many embassies can be found on Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, but also on China’s Sina Weibo or WeChat, changing the way foreign embassies engage with with local audiences in China.

E-Diplomacy: Up & Downsides

Foreign embassies on Weibo have recently been getting more scholarly attention. In “Social Media and E-Diplomacy: Scanning Embassies on Weibo” (2017), Ying Jiang writes that social media is an effective way for embassies to communicate to target groups, more so than conventional (offline) public diplomacy.

However, Jiang also points out that the presence of foreign embassies on Weibo has its downsides, as web users can vent their anger and post negative comments to embassy pages if they are against the policies of those countries.

This is especially apparent on embassy pages such as that of the Japanese embassy in China, where people often leave anti-Japanese comments and pictures related to the Sino-Japanese war.

Comments on the page of the Japanese embassy in China related to WWII.

Comments on the page of the Japanese embassy in China related to WWII.

But there are also countless negative comments on pages of other embassies. On the Weibo page of the German embassy in China, for example, Weibo users have posted many critiques on the country’s refugee policies after a post about new visa announcements. One netizen says: “If Germany doesn’t solve its refugee problem, the country has zero attractiveness anymore.”

On the USA embassy page, netizens leave comments such as: “The US truly is an evil country. You’re the world’s biggest terrorist organization.”

But visitors also often leave words of praise to embassy accounts. On the Danish embassy’s account, for example, some call Denmark “a magical place”, with the “land of fairytales” seemingly captivating the minds of many Chinese netizens.

When Thailand’s king passed away in October 2016, the Thai embassy page on Weibo was filled with condolences from Chinese expressing their grief and stressing the friendship between the Chinese and Thai.

Ying Jiang’s research calculated the number of reactions to every post on Weibo’s embassies with the most followers and found that even if an embassy had the most followers, it was not necessarily most influential based on their received comments and amount of post shares.

According to Ying Jiang’s data, which was collected in the first half of 2015, the Canadian embassy had the largest following on Sina Weibo, followed by the USA, Cuba, UK and South Korea, with the latter being most influential based on its interactions with its followers.

It seems that things have changed over the past two years, as the following list of foreign embassies collected and compiled by What’s on Weibo shows a different order of popularity.

Weibo’s Top 5 Embassies

Although the Canadian, Cuban, US and South Korean embassies are still popular in terms of followers on Weibo, the Brazilian, Japanese, and especially Israeli embassies now have the highest number of fans on Weibo.

The popularity of the Canadian embassy on Weibo can undoubtedly partly be attributed to the strong promotion of China-Canada friendship, the popularity of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and perhaps even the great popularity of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who is honored in China for his role as a battleground surgeon during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

But most importantly, Canada’s success on Weibo is a result of its own endeavors on Chinese social media. In a DiploFoundation interview with Mark McDowell, Counsellor of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, McDowell stresses the importance of the so-called ‘weiplomacy’ (微郊外 Weibo diplomacy) to the Canadian embassy, that has boosted its efforts in using social media as an efficient form of public diplomacy.

McDowell says the Canadian embassy in China posts about 20 to 30 Weibo messages per week, on topics varying from business news to visa issues, the ways Canada measures air pollution, or information about studying in Canada – all topics that interest their large group of followers on Weibo.*

But the current most popular embassy on Weibo is not Canada, nor Cuba or any of the biggest embassies mentioned in Ying Jiang’s 2015 research; it is the Embassy of Israel, that currently has over 1.9 million fans on its Weibo page, where it has posted a total of 3590 posts at the time of writing (in comparison: the Canadian embassy had posted 6979 posts at this time).

Top five according to What’s on Weibo, December 2016:

1. Israeli embassy (@以色列驻华使馆) – 1.913.384 followers
2. Canadian embassy (@加拿大大使馆官方微博)
– 1.131.700+ followers
3. US embassy (@美国驻华大使馆) – 1.035.300+ followers
4. Brazilian embassy (@巴西驻华大使馆) – 522.310+ followers
5. Japanese embassy (@日本国驻华大使馆) – 480.500+ followers

Why is Israel so popular on Weibo?

What makes the Embassy of Israel so popular on Weibo? Overall, Chinese netizens seem to have a positive attitude towards the country. It is, among others, shared memories of the history of WWII that have contributed to the present strong relations between China and Israel.

In 2015, the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai published a video that featured hundreds of Israelis holding “Thank you” signs in Chinese as a sign of gratitude for Shanghai helping the Jews during WWII. It also included a message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing thanks to the Chinese people.

Shimon Peres, former President of Israel.

Shimon Peres, former President of Israel.

In 2014, late Israeli president Shimon Peres became a trending topic on Weibo when he registered for an account and met with Chinese president Xi Jinping. The “handsome old president” was warmly welcomed by Weibo users. One netizen said: “Israel really has been very good to China. During World War II, China took in a lot of Jewish refugees helping them avoid the disaster of war, and now this ethnicity truly knows how to be thankful. This is the kind of country that China should foster good relations with, and whether it be Israel or Pakistan, these are the true brothers of China. Anyway, this president is truly so adorable, and I just love adorable uncles [older men]” (China Smack 2014).

In 2014, the Australian reported that Israeli president Shimon Peres was one of the few Western leaders maintaining a social media presence in China, and that he had over 450,000 followers. When Peres passed away in September 2016, many web users visited the Israeli embassy account to share their condolences, praising the former president as a friend of China.

Web users lighting digital candles for Peres and posting their condoleances on the Israeli Embassy Weibo site.

Web users lighting digital candles for Peres and posting their condoleances on the Israeli Embassy Weibo site.

According to Robert Lakin (@LakinTLV), founder of Analytika Research, Israel’s popularity on Weibo is a case of cause and effect.

“The Israel Foreign Ministry has really stepped up its game on social media,” Lakin tells What’s on Weibo: “The Israel Defense Force’s has also boosted its use of social media. As the country puts out more buzz-worthy content, the effect is a jump in social followers. This includes lots of peripheral, one-off activity, too.” Lakin also mentions the influence of the Times of Israel‘s Chinese language website, which might have contributed to the Israeli success on Weibo.

What About the ‘Unpopular’ Foreign Embassies?

With countries such as Israel and Canada having a relatively positive image among Chinese people – which also reflects in their popularity on social media – does this mean that the lowest-ranking foreign embassies on Weibo also are of those nations that have a less positive reputation in China?

Not necessarily so. According to What’s on Weibo, the embassies of Estonia, Monaco and Indonesia have the lowest number of followers on Weibo, but this also has to do with the low activity on the concerning accounts; Estonia last posted in 2012, Indonesia in 2014, whereas Monaco has just posted its 75 first posts on the social media platform.

List of Foreign Embassies on Weibo

This is the list of foreign embassies currently present on Sina Weibo, from most popular to less popular in terms of followers. The great majority of these accounts have all been verified by Sina Weibo as the official embassy of their country (‘V’ status); if not, it has been noted.

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1. Israeli embassy (@以色列驻华使馆) 1.913.384 followers

2. Canadian embassy (@加拿大大使馆官方微博) 1.131.700+ followers

3. US embassy (@美国驻华大使馆) 1.035.300+ followers

4. Brazilian embassy (@巴西驻华大使馆) 522.310+ followers

5. Japanese embassy (@日本国驻华大使馆) 480.500+ followers

6. South-Korean embassy (@韩国驻华大使馆) 396.960+ followers

7. Cuban embassy (@古巴驻华大使馆) 358.950+ followers

8. British embassy (@英国大使馆文化教育处) 289.280+ followers

9. French embassy (@法国驻华使馆) 255.240+ followers

10. Russian embassy (@俄罗斯驻华大使馆) 167.539+ followers

11. Australian embassy (@澳大利亚驻华使领馆) 165.240+ followers

12. German embassy (@德国驻华大使馆) 147.230+ followers

13. Embassy of Myanmar (@中缅胞波兄弟情) 146.000 followers

14. Danish embassy (@中缅胞波兄弟情) 丹麦驻华大使馆) 139.760+ followers

15. Thai embassy (@泰国驻华大使馆) 104.570+ followers

16. Swiss embassy (@瑞士驻华大使馆) 99.190+ followers

17. Swedish embassy (@瑞典驻华大使馆微博) 68.310+ followers

18. Dutch embassy (@荷兰驻华大使馆) 68.070+ followers

19. Mexican embassy (@墨西哥驻华大使馆) 50.160+ followers

20. Belgian embassy (@比利时驻华使馆) 49585+ followers

21. Italian embassy (@意大利驻华使馆) 46.330+ followers

22. Polish embassy (@波兰使馆文化处) 39185+ followers

23. Nepal embassy (@尼泊尔大使馆官方微博) 37.177+ followers

24. New Zealand embassy (@新西兰驻华大使馆) 37.140+ followers

25. Mauritanian embassy (@毛里塔尼亚驻华大使馆) 36.545+ followers

26. Zimbabwean embassy (@中国驻津巴布韦大使馆) 35.450+ followers

27. Costa Rican embassy (@哥斯达黎加驻华大使馆) 34.930+ followers

28. Peruvian Embassy (@秘鲁驻华使馆) 33.507 followers

29. Portugese embassy (@葡萄牙驻华大使馆) 28.380+ followers

30. Maldives embassy (@马尔代夫驻华大使馆) 22.460+ followers

31. Indian embassy (@印度使馆文化处) 22.225+ followers

32. Irish embassy (@爱尔兰驻华大使馆) 20.191+ followers

33. Spanish embassy (@西班牙驻华大使馆官方微博) 16.030+ followers

34. Austrian embassy (@奥地利驻华使馆) 15.960+ followers

35. Norwegian embassy (@挪威驻华大使馆) 11.800+ followers

36. Turkish embassy / official tourism board (@土耳其旅游局) 67.430+ followers

37. Kazakhstan embassy (@哈萨克斯坦驻华大使馆) 12.670+ followers

38. Ukranian embassy (@乌克兰信使) 9960+ followers

39. Iranian Embassy (@伊朗驻华大使馆) 6166 followers [not verified]

40. Rwandan embassy (@卢旺达驻华大使馆) 5480+ followers

41. Lithuanian embassy (@立陶宛驻华大使馆商务处) 3170+ followers

42. Chilean embassy (@智利驻中国大使馆) 2540+ followers

43. Sri Lankan embassy (@中国驻斯里兰卡大使馆) 2109 followers

44. Egyptian embassy (@埃及驻华大使馆) [account not verified] 910+ followers (Note: the account of the official Egypt tourism board on Weibo has 28392 followers).

45. Estonian Embassy (@爱沙尼亚驻华大使馆) [account not verified] 540+ followers

46. Embassy of Monaco (@摩纳哥公国大使馆) 450+ followers

47. Indonesian Embassy (@印度尼西亚驻华大使馆) [account not verified] 350+ followers

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With Sina Weibo currently seeing a revival and WeChat being China’s number one app, the use of these social media platforms in digital diplomacy is essential for foreign embassies wanting to engage with millions of Chinese – not just for the sake of providing information about traveling, arranging visas, or studying abroad, but also for the mere purpose of boosting their nation’s image in China.

With China’s online population growing as we write, and its social media features getting more versatile by the day, this might just be the beginning of China’s digital platforms being used as a diplomatic tool for foreign embassies.

Please follow us to stay up-to-date on more articles on this topic in the near future.

– By Manya Koetse
Follow on Twitter or Like on Facebook

*According to Globe and Mail, not all of the Canadian embassy’s followers are actually ‘real’; in a 2014 article, the website alleged that nearly 87% of the Canadian embassy account fans are ‘zombies’; fake accounts that do not represent actual persons. The Canadian government, however, stated it had never paid for the alleged fake followers and that it does not know where they come from. Note that for this article, we have not done any research into ‘fake followers’ and do not know if the top-ranking embassies have fake followers, and if so, how many there would be.

References

Bjola, Corneliu and Marcus Holmes (ed). 2015. Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. Routledge: London and New York.

Cai, Peter. 2014. “How Israel is winning the social media war in China.” The Australian, September 2 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/business-spectator/how-israel-is-winning-the-social-media-war-in-china/news-story/08fb25d94b34b3036616c0334531ddc6 [20.12.16].

Jiang, Ying. 2017. “Social Media and E-Diplomacy: Scanning Embassies on Weibo.” In: Naren Chitty, Li Ji, Gary D. Rawnsley, Craig Hayden (ed), The Routledge Handbook of Soft Power. New york: Routledge: New York.

Rugh, William A. 2014. Front Line Public Diplomacy: How US Embassies Communicate with Foreign Publics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

What’s on Weibo is an independently run news blog. We accept donations to help us keep the site going. Donating is possible via www.paypal.me/whatsonweibo.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bjorn

    December 21, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    You forgot to add the EU Delegation to China to the list: 150 000+ followers 😀

  2. Avatar

    James

    December 24, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Is the Chinese 微郊外 correct? Should be 微外交 no?

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China Digital

From Red Packet to Virtual Hongbao: Lucky Envelopes in China’s Digital Era

Raising virtual cows, shaking with phones – this is the Chinese New Year tradition of giving red envelopes in the digital era.

Things That Talk

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The custom of giving out red paper envelopes has evolved into a world of virtual lucky money and online games. This is the transformation of a Chinese New Year’s tradition, reported by Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

Ever wanted to raise a digital cow? This year, you can raise your own lucky cow (福牛) for Chinese New Year on Weibo. Through maintaining and raising their virtual cow (or ox), users can participate in this online game to win red envelopes, a well-known and beloved tradition linked to Chinese New Year.

The hashtag “Lucky Cow’s New Year’s Travelogue” (#福牛新春旅行记#) is linked to Weibo’s celebration of Chinese Spring Festival and the Year of the Ox. Users are expected to be active on Weibo daily to raise their cow/ox, similar to the once so popular Tamagotchi. Whilst leveling up their cow, users get the possibility to earn digital red envelopes.

The online game is another development in the story of the red envelopes, known in China as hongbao (红包). Often given during Chinese New Year, the envelopes can also be given at other joyous occasions like weddings. These red envelopes are given to each other by friends and family members to wish each other a happy new year and are always filled with an amount of money.

Red envelopes for sale via Taobao.

The practice of giving money during Chinese New Year goes far back in Chinese history. The earliest form of the red envelope is said to be yasuiqian (压祟钱). In order to keep evil spirits away, called sui (祟), people put money underneath children’s pillow since the evil spirits were said to be warded off by coins.1 These coins were woven together using a string.

Yasuiqian

As time went by and paper money and envelopes became more widespread, string and coins were replaced and the red envelope was created.

Red envelopes are used by Chinese all over the world nowadays. The amount of money inside depends on many factors. Recently, the tradition has left behind its tangible form and entered the digital era.

 

“Adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes”

 

In 2014, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat (微信) launched a new function that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes. Users could send an amount of money directly to another user, or an amount of red envelopes could be sent into a groupchat. When the function launched, users worldwide could shake their phones in order to receive free red envelopes. The amount of money that was given to users surpassed 500 million yuan ($77.5 million).

WeChat’s inventive idea put digital red envelopes on the map in China. During the peak of the event, 800 million shakes were recorded per minute. There were two types of envelopes introduced in 2014 by Tencent, the company that owns WeChat:

1. A regular red envelope that could be sent directly from one user to another.
2. A ‘group’ red envelope, with a limited number to be grabbed and a limited sum of money which can be grabbed by all users in a group if they are fast enough. The sum inside this envelope is randomized, adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes.

Other companies also wanted a piece of the digital red envelope cake: Weibo and AliPay combined their strengths a year after WeChat introduced its digital hongbao in order to promote their version of the digital red envelope.

A ‘war’ then broke out between the two companies. AliPay handed out 600 million renminbi ($93 million) worth of red envelopes as a response to WeChat’s 120 million envelopes sent out during the televised celebration of Chinese New Year.2

 

“Digital red envelopes can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact”

 

In the years after, the digital red envelope became more and more popular. Weibo and Alipay also came with their version of sending red envelopes online. The companies organized large-scale actions to make users make use of their form of digital red envelopes.

WeChat, for instance, gives users the option to make the red envelopes very personal through adding stickers and personal messages, making the digital red envelope an even more enjoyable experience.

Does this new development of the traditional red envelope make the tangible envelope obsolete?

When asked by the digital newspaper The Paper (澎湃新闻) about whether the digital red envelope might replace its tangible brother, scholar Tian Zhaoyuan (田兆元) of East China Normal University said that the digital red envelope can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact. Though friends and family may send one another digital red envelopes, it does not mean that it replaces the tangible red envelopes.3

The tradition of sending red envelopes is and will be inherently linked to Chinese New Year. Though both the paper and digital forms of the tradition remain incredibly popular, the virtual hongbao will definitely win territory once more this year as travel is restricted due to COVID-19. Especially in these times, the digital red envelope is the best digital way of wishing family and friends a happy new year.

Why are ‘lucky envelopes’ not just red, but sometimes also green or purple? Read more via Things That Talk here.

 
By Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

Xiaojun Zhang (China Studies, BA) is an MA student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on contemporary Chinese culture, symbolism and food. For Things That Talk, she currently works on a project about Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. Check out the story “Hongbao: from paper envelope to digital gift” on Things That Talk here!

 
Footnotes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Kin Wai Michael Siu. 2001. “Red Packet: a Traditional Object in the Modern World.” Journal of Popular Culture 35 (3), 103.
2 Chen, Liyan. 2015. “Red Envelope War: How Alibaba and Tencent Fight Over Chinese New Year.” Forbes, Feb 19 https://www.forbes.com/sites/liyanchen/2015/02/19/red-envelope-war-how-alibaba-and-tencent-fight-over-chinese-new-year/?sh=1b88bccccddd.
3 The Paper, Zuowei yi zhong “xinnian su”, weixin hongbao hui qudai zhizhi hongbao ma? 作为一种“新年俗”,微信红包会取代纸质红包吗?, https://cul.qq.com/a/20160208/012888.htm.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

Conversations Behind the Wall: Clubhouse App Now Blocked in China

While the Clubhouse app is no longer accessible from within the PRC, conversations continue behind the wall.

Manya Koetse

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The Clubhouse app became a hot topic among web users in mainland China this weekend. On Monday, the platform was no longer accessible from within the PRC.

On Saturday, we posted an article about the surge in popularity of American ‘drop-in audio chat’ social media platform Clubhouse in mainland China.

As conversations about the popular app continued throughout the weekend, the app was no longer accessible from within mainland China on Monday.

Clubhouse describes itself as “a space for casual, drop-in audio conversations—with friends and other interesting people around the world” where you can “go online anytime to chat with the people you follow, or hop in as a listener and hear what others are talking about.”

The app has virtual rooms and events themed around various topics – anything from politics to music – and lets hundreds of members join conversations as moderators, speakers, or listeners.

The Clubhouse app was developed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Davison and ex-Google employee Rohan Seth. It was first launched in April 2020 on iOS only, and is still only accessible through iPhone for users who have an invite.

Before Monday, the Clubhouse app was freely accessible from within China for those people who had an invite, but only if they had access to the non-Chinese Apple store to download the app.

The app was a hot topic on various Chinese social media platforms this weekend. On Weibo, the civilized and open character of the Clubhouse conversations were praised, allowing a broader understanding of issues that otherwise remain untouched or are limited within the Chinese social media sphere.

One Chinese-language virtual room about the Xinjiang camps was joined by hundreds of people on Saturday. But besides the room focused on Xinjiang, there were also other rooms where discussions took place about the status of Hong Kong and about issues such as whether or not (overseas) Chinese are willing to return to the mainland and why.

“It is like a small crack in a window,” one person on Weibo said about Clubhouse, while others already predicted the app would become unavailable from within mainland China soon.

When it finally happened on Monday, the responses on Weibo were mainly those of disappointment. “Bye bye Clubhouse,” some Weibo users wrote, with others expressing their surprise: “What?! It was just popular for two days and it’s already blocked? They move so fast it’s scary.”

“I was active on Clubhouse for two days. I didn’t expect it to be shut down so soon already.”

Although many commenters previously expressed that they expected the app to become unavailable within the PRC, the fact that it was shutdown while it was just exploding online comes as a surprise to some, as various commenters write.

The term ‘Clubhouse’ was also temporarily blocked on Weibo by Monday night Beijing time; over the weekend various hashtags relating to the app made their rounds on Chinese social media, but the hashtag pages were no longer online by Monday evening.

‘Clubhouse’ no longer shows results on social media platform Weibo. Screenshot by What’s on Weibo.

Meanwhile, various Chinese-language rooms on Clubhouse discussed the topic of its disappearance in China.

A room titled “Clubhouse is blocked, and now?” was joined by over a hundred people on Monday night. The room “Clubhouse is blocked” attracted over 3000 participants. These conversations are likely to continue for the time to come, but now they must continue behind the Great Firewall of China.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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