In the slow-evolving world of diplomacy, it may be the biggest innovation since the wax seal: social media that lets Canadian diplomats go around the censors to speak directly to, and hear from, the citizens of the world’s rising superpower.
Tired of having their message telegraphed (or not) through the muddying filter of China’s official media, the Canadian Embassy in Beijing opened an account on the popular Twitter-style social networking site Sina Weibo in June 2011. Rather than waiting for the next ministerial visit before issuing a bland statement, Embassy staff now post four or five items a day on Weibo – many of them inane or irreverent, all of them in Chinese.
But in a state obsessed with controlling information, relevancy begets difficulties. For the first time since the embassy's account opened, a posting disappeared this week after it touched on sensitive political ground.
After years of seeing Canada’s name dragged through the mud – in both the official media and online – over the refuge granted to Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing, the embassy used Weibo on Wednesday to post the entire Federal Court decision that resulted in the 53-year-old’s deportation to China last month after about a decade-long legal battle.
But the posting was erased from Weibo almost as soon as it went up.
Though the Chinese government is pleased with Mr. Lai's extradition, it likely wouldn’t want too many Chinese reading the entire court decision, which mentions the incarceration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, as well as Beijing’s persecution of Tibetans and the Falun Gong. The ruling Communist Party typically censors most online discussion of these topics.
Unlike Twitter and Facebook, which are both blocked inside China (though accessible to those with access to virtual private networks), Sina Weibo co-operates with the Chinese government by helping censor the online conversations among its 140-million users.
On Thursday, the embassy posted a link to the decision on its Weibo account, but this time referring to Mr. Lai – who is accused of masterminding a massive smuggling ring in the 1990s – as a “well-known wanted criminal.” The second posting remained up all day Friday and drew dozens of comments from “netizens,” as Internet users here are known.
The embassy's Weibo account now has more than 50,000 followers, some of whom join lively discussions on the site about topics such as Canadian visa policies, tourism in the Rocky Mountains and why bookstores such as Chapters allow you to sit and read books without buying anything. The most popular posting is a photograph of a blue lobster reeled in off Prince Edward Island. Old-fashioned announcements about visiting politicians such as Foreign Minister John Baird or Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson are less popular.
In trying to speak to the residents of a host country in their own language (although the Lai decision was left untranslated), the Weibo account is the first of its kind for a Canadian diplomatic outpost. While the embassy in Washington D.C. runs a Twitter feed, their postings are in English and French and largely target the community of expatriate Canadians living and working in the United States.
The embassy's Weibo account is also one of the rare places where Canadian diplomats can write or speak (albeit in 140-character bursts, the maximum allowable length on the site) without having their words first edited and cleared in Ottawa. The frequency of the postings, combined with time differences, make it impractical for each item to be routed through headquarters.
“We [diplomats]are under tremendous pressure to innovate and to really understand who our audience is. We’re pretty convinced that reaching out to this group of largely young people who are interested in the world and interested in Canada relates directly to what we’re doing here,” Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, David Mulroney, said in an interview. The 56-year-old career diplomat said the online interaction with ordinary Chinese citizens was now “the single most important tool we have in understanding what this emerging generation in China is all about.”
But as revolutionary as it is in the Canadian diplomatic world, Canada’s decision to join Weibo came only after the bulk of the diplomatic corps in Beijing had already done the same. It was less of a decision by Canada’s diplomats to join Weibo than an understanding that they could no longer afford not to.
While the ambassador writes postings himself – including one about his decision to get a dog – Mr. Mulroney says he has no plans to digitally reveal what he had for dinner, as other ambassadors do. Mr. Mulroney said he wanted to avoid creating a “cult of personality” and instead let Canada speak for itself.
“We’re not going to create the impression that we’re lecturing people, but we are going to create opportunities for people to see who we are, what motivates us, what we value and why we think our society is so effective.”
The response to the posting of the Lai verdict best illustrated his point. Some of those who wrote responses bashed Canada for not extraditing a wanted man sooner. Others wondered suspiciously at why it had happened now, after 10 years of waiting. But a few appeared to get the message the embassy was hoping to send.
“When can Chinese verdicts be shown to the public online?” asked a netizen from Shanghai who posted under an alias. “That is what is called open and fair.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Canadian embassy opened a Sina Weibo account in June 2010. The account was opened in June 2011. This version has been corrected.