WORLD FEBRUARY 17, 2013
In 2011, after the military junta that had ruled Myanmar since 1962 dissolved, the new government loosened its restrictions on the Internet. Drunk, presumably, on the nectar of newfound online freedoms, the Chinese Embassy in Yangon did what many other Burmese web users did: It created a Facebook page. That page has since attracted more than 14,000 fans—impressive in a country with only 500,000 Internet users.
It’s not the only diplomatic outpost for the People's Republic getting in on the Facebook action. The Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco started a page in August 2013, and it has more than 2,800 likes. The Embassy in Mongolia opened its Facebook doors on January 3 with a message in the Mongolian language: "Greetings, O Mongolian friends. Happy New Year." (h/t Google Translate.) Even the province of Shaanxi recently created its own Twitter feed and Facebook page to attract foreign tourists.
Internet users in China wouldn't know it, of course. Facebook has been blocked on the mainland since 2009, after riots in Xinjiang province led to a media crackdown. While no explicit reason has ever been given for the ongoing blockage, it's likely a combination of political concerns—the government can't police speech on Facebook the way it can on Sina Weibo—and protectionism in favor of domestic social media like Weibo and Renren. Initial reports last fall that the block on Facebook would be lifted in Shanghai's new Free Trade Zone turned out to be false.
But that doesn't stop Chinese embassies and consulates from engaging communities abroad. "Happy Chinese New Year to All Our Loving Fans," the San Francisco Consulate wrote on Jan. 30. The consulate also posts regular, not-always-grammatical news updates ("now you can take direct flight by Air China traveling between Hawaii and Beijing!"), thumbnail introductions to Chinese culture ("Sugar painting is not only a valuable fork art, but also a type of snack among children"), and reader contests ("don't miss your chance to win TWO FREE movie tickets!").
Facebook also provides an opportunity to highlight local news. "The year of 2014 is just filled with celebrations for the State of Nevada," the San Francisco consulate announced recently. The Myanmar embassy posts headlines that might interest Burmese readers, such as "China's neighborhood diplomacy promotes regional peace" and "China monks donate drinking water well to Thabaung Township."
Whoever administers these Facebook pages (the embassies and consulates did not respond to requests for comment) is not afraid to editorialize. After Japanese President Shinzo Abe compared Japan's controversial Yasukuni Shrine to Arlington National Cemetery, the Myanmar embassy approvingly posted an op-ed from The National Interest titled "Sorry, Japan: Yasukuni Is Not Arlington." A post by the San Francisco consulate about an interview with the head of a government-established Tibetan research center included this addendum: "It is the people who live in Tibet that are best qualified to speak on what’s happened in their land, not a few who left Tibet more than 60 years ago and never returned ever since." When the New York Times published an op-ed piece accusing military hard-liners in Myanmar of tacitly condoning anti-Muslim violence, the Chinese embassy condemned the article, saying it "feels deeply regrets for the lack of factural basis of those remarks."
These are not your usual stuffy diplomatic flacks. The administrators have mastered the lingo of their young, hip Facebook audience. "[G]iven that large swathes of China are frequently shrouded in smog in recent years," the San Francisco consulate announced, "many Chinese start to believe that riotous displays of fireworks may not be such a cool thing." The SF also deploys smiley faces aggressively, as when they wished that visitors in 2013 "have a merrier, happier holiday than ever!:)" And the official Shaanxi Twitter feed has totally nailed the hashtag.
And because it’s China, many of the Facebook posts are lifted from other sources without citation. For example, a seemingly original item on the Myanmar embassy's page about hot springs in Guizhou was copied directly from China Daily. Or maybe, since they're all on the same payroll, it's not plagiarism so much as content sharing.
The reviews are positive, at least according to the users who have left comments on the sites. "Direct engagement with foreign public is the best public diplomacy one can ever do," wrote one Chinese student on the San Francisco page. "I LIKE IT," wrote a user named Henry, "BUT WE NEED MORE CHINESE WOMEN IN HAYWARD, CALIFORNIA, AND IN SAN FRANCISCO, CA. I AM NATIVE AMERICAN INDIAN AND I HOPE TO MEET A CHINESE LADY SOON! xiexie ni." He also left his contact information.
The moderators are diligent about engaging with commenters. "Just Beautiful!" one San Fran user wrote in response to a post about Tibetan castles in Sichuan province. "Your culture is so rich and ancient it boggles the mind!" The consulate thanked him for the comment. After the Myanmar embassy posted wintry photos of a scenic park in northern Sichuan, a fan asked, "What are these white color?" The embassy responded: "ice."
The orders for social media engagement don't seem to be coming from the top of China's diplomatic ladder. After all, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn't on Facebook or Twitter. Rather, these Facebook pages seem to be just a natural way to reach local communities, and the embassies are proud of it.
No one would object to the Chinese government using Facebook for self-promotion. Nor is the cleaned-up, perky China found on these pages cause for complaint. What's Facebook for, if not presenting an idealized version of oneself to the world? But the fact that China markets itself on Facebook abroad while blocking the site on the mainland—not to mention deleting the Weibo accounts of American consulates—has a certain irony. It's not unlike the recent scuffle over journalist visas, which China guards jealously while the United States makes it rain. Here's yet another level on which China restricts foreign entities from operating on its turf, while enjoying relative freedom overseas.
Really it's only a matter of time until Xi Jinping joins Tinder.