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Digital diplomacy with Chinese characteristics

Written by Dr Kiran Hassan |

With the expansion of China’s economic and technological power in the last two decades, its digital imprint is increasingly visible across the globe. Although social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter (X) and YouTube are banned in the Chinese mainland, Chinese foreign policy mandarins are deploying these platforms to promote their government’s geopolitical and economic agenda aiming at friends and adversaries, as well as among the large Chinese diaspora. China’s software for digital diplomacy is underpinned by a robust global communication hardware, part of the ‘Digital Silk Road’ projects, creating new information and communication networks for Chinese public diplomacy and digital commerce. Major Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE, China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom have invested in the construction and maintenance of undersea cables, especially focusing on the global South. Such developments could potentially undermine the concept of a free an open internet.

To discuss the rising influence of Chinese digital diplomacy and the implications of such developments in Europe and Commonwealth countries within the BRI, an international symposium, was held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London on the 21 May 2024, with scholars from different parts of the world, including countries in the Commonwealth and Europe as well as from China. 

The event was hosted by Professor Kingsley Abbott (Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies) in collaboration with Professor Daya Thussu (Professor of International Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies).

Following a welcome and introduction by Professor Abbott, Professor Thussu introduced the topic by looking at how China has rigorously restricted the entry of such global digital corporations as Alphabet, Meta and Amazon within its cyberspace, while its own companies are accused of harvesting and trading in data from across the world through apps such as TikTok. Given the nature of the Chinese state, this raised questions about media freedom, as well as privacy, security and surveillance among democracies.

Among the themes covered were China’s growing presence in South and Southeast Asia, its use of social media to provide an alternative framework for contemporary global conflicts and its efforts to influence European political elites – with studies from Denmark, Germany and Italy - as well as the Chinese diaspora in Europe. The presentations included:

  • China’s narratives on the Ukraine war: A framing analysis of Global Times, Dr Emilie Tran Sautede, Metropolitan University of Hong Kong; Vincent Mo, PhD Candidate and Jiawei Tang Master’s student, Central European University, Vienna

  • From ‘Wolf Warrior’ to mediator of conflicts: China’s foreign policy and its ontological security, Dr Yu-chin Tseng (video recorded presentation), Department of Chinese Studies, University of Tübingen, Germany

  • Employing memes as digital propaganda? China’s digital diplomacy on Twitter, 2019-2022, Dr Mette Thunø (Zoom), Department of Global Studies, Arts/Aarhus University, Denmark

  • Sharing, liking and commenting the Chinese transnational space: Contemporary narratives on China and the Chinese diaspora engagement, Dr Antonella Ceccagno (joining by Zoom) Department of Languages, Literature and Modern Culture, University of Bologna, Italy and Carola Ludovica Giannotti Mura, PhD Candidate, University of Milano Bicocca, Italy (Zoom)

  • China-Pakistan digital bonhomie: 3C’s Corridors, Cultures and Connectivity - Why China’s digital diplomacy works?

    , Dr Kiran Hassan, Former Coordinator, Freedom of Expression and Digital Rights Institute of Commonwealth Studies

The symposium was well-attended in person and on Zoom and there was a lively discussion in the Q and A sessions. The event was followed by a wine reception.

These papers will be published in a special issue of the Sage journal Global Media and Communication.