Can China’s Government Advance Its Case on Twitter?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In June, China’s Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai and the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. both ventured into the world of Twitter. They joined Hu Xijin, editor of the Party mouthpiece Global Times, who now has more than 100,000 followers; the Chinese diplomat Lijian Zhao, who has more than 200,000; and China’s ambassadors to India and the Maldives; among others. In late October, China’s ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, signed up as well.

In mid-August, Twitter and Facebook removed thousands of accounts originating in China that “acted in a coordinated fashion to amplify messages and images that portrayed Hong Kong’s protesters as violent and extreme,” according to The New York Times. And on September 9, the state newspaper China Daily claimed without evidence on its Facebook page that “anti-government fanatics” are planning a 9/11-style terror attack on Hong Kong. Both Twitter and Facebook are blocked in mainland China.

How successful have Chinese officials been at their use of English-language social media? Has the Chinese Party-state’s use of Facebook and Twitter been good or bad for Chinese soft power? —The Editors


The more than 3.6 million tweets Twitter identified as a state-backed information operation and the appearances of Chinese diplomats on the platform signals that Beijing is transitioning from being reactive to proactive on overseas social media platforms. This requires platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to become more proactive in combating propaganda and disinformation. They can do so by becoming more transparent in content moderation and inauthentic user detection. Twitter’s recent data dumps are a step in the right direction, but not far enough.

Until recently, Beijing’s presence on overseas social media platforms had been largely reactionary, prioritizing domestic audiences. Beijing only took action when narratives it disliked gathered such momentum on overseas platforms that they began to filter through and influence domestic politics. Among the tweets contained in Twitter’s August data dump, the overwhelming majority aimed to counter the narratives popularized by Guo Wengui, the Chinese billionaire dissident living in exile in a New York City penthouse. Since 2017, Guo has been using YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to amplify the narrative that the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party were corrupt, implicating even Wang Qishan, the top lieutenant of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.

Ahead of the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Guo’s activities on overseas platforms reached a fever pitch, with him live-streaming daily, sometime for hours. Beijing reacted. Over 400 of the 936 accounts in Twitter’s data sets were created in 2017, and over half of those were created in August 2017, around the time of crucial politicking ahead of the 19th Party Congress. Those accounts’ counter-narratives were designed to divide and conquer those who follow Guo. For those who called him a hero who speaks truth to power, they called him a criminal guilty of crimes ranging from fraud to rape; for those who saw him as a successful businessman, the message was that he was broke; for those who valued Guo as a former insider, they claimed his tales were pure fabrications.

Those accounts have also been used to counter other narratives that Beijing didn’t want amplified, such as the 2015 disappearances of the Causeway Bay bookstore owners, the 709 crackdown on human rights lawyers, and the recent protests in Hong Kong.

However, platforms can readily detect such coordinated inauthentic user behavior, and publicizing the data helps reveal to the public the perpetrator’s M.O. Indeed, researchers have already gained valuable insight thanks to Twitter’s two recent data dumps. But combating disinformation requires commitment to a higher standard of transparency. Many researchers found the data sets frustratingly incomplete. They lacked the historical data which would show how content of the accounts has changed over time, information on when the accounts were suspended, and information on how the platform deemed the account’s behaviors inauthentic.

Information operations by authoritarian regimes can use liberal democracies’ openness against them. However, if platforms commit to transparency, influence operations would be a lot more costly and ineffective to run.

The increasing presence of Chinese officials and state media on overseas social media is a continuation of China’s “media going-out” policy, which dates back to as early as 2000. Their presence today is part of the current administration’s pledge to “tell the China story well,” which, among international audiences, has produced mixed results at best.

The fundamental challenge in China’s pursuit of soft power is not whether Chinese official outlets can adapt to storytelling styles on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Rather, Chinese official outlets’ lack of credibility and authenticity has led to international audiences’ refusal to believe in “the China story” told by Chinese media. It reflects a distrust in the Party-state’s governance, at home and abroad.

China is stepping up its push for a China narrative by being more present and creative on international social media. Some of Beijing’s efforts to appeal to younger and English-speaking audience have created lots of buzz internationally. In 2015, Chinese state media released a cartoon video on Twitter and YouTube extolling Party slogans. (Some referred to it as a “digital makeover” for Beijing’s political propaganda.) Since 2016, CGTN (formerly CCTV-9), the state-controlled English-language news channel, has pushed Beijing’s perspective in several high-profile cases around the world. For instance, CGTN anchor Liu Xin took to Twitter to debate the U.S.-China trade war with the Fox News host Trish Regan. Liu’s later appearance on Regan’s show drew lots of attention in both China and the U.S., even though CGTN did not broadcast the live debate.

How much have these presences of Beijing’s voices actually translated into Chinese soft power? Around the time when the Party urged media to “go out,” it also warned all news media and practitioners that they must be the mouthpiece for the Party. Regardless of how creative it is or on which platform it is posted, news media content is often filled with propagandistic intent, and is rarely impartial. CGTN’s reporting on the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, for example, has led to an investigation by the British media regulator over claims that CGTN’s coverage breached broadcasting rules.

The fundamental challenge for China’s pathway to soft power is not its inability to creatively tell stories that appeal to overseas social media audiences. Rather, the challenge comes from the intrinsic lack of credibility of and a deep distrust in the Party-state that maintains its rule and legitimacy largely by controlling information, manipulating public opinion, and at times suppressing dissidents. While the above-mentioned groundbreaking English-language animation attracted international attention, online comments outside the Chinese Internet were largely critical. Some highlighted the irony between the Party's plans to grow its presence on international platforms and its efforts to block those platforms domestically. The Party-state’s information control practices targeting citizens domestically are increasingly being used to silence critical voices internationally. Beijing will eventually become adept at using international social media to “tell the China story,” but the value and ideology behind that story is going to be a tough sell to international audiences.

How could Chinese propaganda, the truest of all information in the universe, be deleted on Facebook and Twitter as if it were some inharmonious sensitive keywords on Weibo and WeChat? And how unfair that the world was actually fair for a brief moment!

Nowadays, propaganda is far more plentiful than pork in China, yet it seems to sell better than any food in shortage. However, on Facebook and Twitter, the two main black markets in the global marketplace of ideas, Chinese propaganda is in danger of being left on the shelf to rot.

Poor ideas abound in the black markets, but most last at least half a dozen rounds in the crowded boxing ring called the comment section. In China, however, ideas opposed to official propaganda are either sent to prison or tied up, blindfolded, and pinned to the ground. Propaganda only needs to tickle the opponents to be declared the winner.

That’s why overseas Chinese propaganda fails against more seasoned ideas and rhetoric outside the Great Firewall. So far, no combination of beautiful Chinese landscapes, high-speed rail development, and economic figures posted by official Chinese media and Chinese diplomats on Facebook or Twitter has been able to provide a convincing knockout punch. And when social media platforms begin enforcing their terms of service, the truest of all truths China wants to spread simply cannot exist.

After all, only force can ensure the success of propaganda. Official propaganda’s dominance in China is not possible without stringent censorship and threats of state violence against those who dare challenge it. China should consider setting up a global Internet peacekeeping mission that harmonizes platforms such as Facebook and Twitter with China’s surplus of Internet police and sophisticated automatic filters. China’s overseas propaganda campaign would be more effective if the Chinese authorities could threaten to jail Mark Zuckerberg if he refuses to be a good boy.