An experimental attempt at some online diplomacy in China failed spectacularly last week when the US Embassy in Beijing’s online question-and-answer session was abruptly disappeared.
Filled with over 40 questions on topics like how to buy cheap Broadway tickets, what’s up with California surf culture and what steps must be taken to set up a food truck in the US (not to mention about a dozen visa questions), the “Discover America” Q&A session on Zhihu.com (Chinese Quora) was nowhere to be found last Wednesday morning.
According to a cached version of the site, the page had been viewed over 1 million times by about 27,000 people before it vanished. Questions were answered by a total of eight people, four officers at the embassy, two American professors and two Chinese nationals living in the US. Chinese netizens were invited to ask about anything that they wanted to know about the US.
Along with the deletion of the page itself, the Zhihu accounts of the diplomats and professors were deleted as well.
This all doesn’t sit well with Benjamin Weber, spokesman for the US Embassy in Beijing, he told the Wall Street Journal that the embassy was “disappointed by this action” and had raised its concerns with Chinese authorities:
The embassy was invited by Zhihu.com to participate in a program about the United States. The questions were submitted from Zhihu, and we understand they were based on the interests expressed by Zhihu’s users.
Our participation was in keeping with the embassy’s role in representing the people of the United States to the people of China through our public diplomacy, and we look forward to opportunities to engage in genuine dialogues about issues and ideas of interest to the Chinese and American people.
Some believe that the Q&A session was deleted because Chinese authorities thought that it was simply too effective of a soft power tool, which threatened to poison the minds of their young and impressionable web users with dangerous American propaganda.
Back on May 8th, Party mouthpiece the Global Times introduced the US Embassy Q&A session on its English-language site, but not its Chinese-language one, with an article that foreshadowed troubles to come:
The query “how to evaluate the abrupt appearance of a group of US diplomats on Zhihu” was posted on the website soon after the event.
An anonymous user wrote that diplomats gave positive introductions of US society when answering questions and their adept communication skills helped export US values and culture.
Yin Yungong, an expert on the socialist system at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that this event was “ideological publicity” in the name of cultural exchange and the US is using social media in China to enlarge its influence, especially among young people.
Next, on May 19th, the Global Times published another article reporting that the session had been “halted by authorities.” While the article failed to give any official reason it did relay concerns by a certain segment of the Chinese internet:
The online activity has raised concern among some netizens about whether the embassy was using cultural exchange to push US ideology.
A WeChat account affiliated with the Communist Youth League Central Committee released an article on Tuesday that published some Net users’ comments about the activity and cited President Xi Jinping’s remarks on strengthening ideological work.
“If we do not go and occupy the publicity and ideology battlefield, others will occupy it,” Xi said at a national conference on publicity and ideological work in August 2013.
The WeChat article highlighted several comments, including one stating, “The sudden appearance of the US diplomats on zhihu.com seems to have triggered a high-level battle in the field of public opinion.” Another comment noted that, “These diplomats all display the bright side of life in the US.”
Netizens also highlighted some controversial remarks made by former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman during his run for president in 2011:
“We should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies within China. They’re called the young people. They’re called the internet generation. There are 500 million internet users in China. And 80 million bloggers. And they are bringing about change, the likes of which is gonna take China down.”
In retrospect, Huntsman’s grand plan would appear to have some holes.
Considering current tensions between the US and China, on issues like the South China Sea and human rights, it is perhaps more surprising that Chinese netizens were allowed to ask American diplomats online about surf culture in the first place.