Chinese authorities routinely delete and suppress posts made to social media in China by embassies in Beijing, imposing the country’s censorship regime upon foreign governments − and raising fears that those governments, including Canada’s, are adapting by self-censoring.
Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like Chinese service, was once touted as a potent tool that would empower foreign diplomats to use “Weiplomacy” to reach hundreds of millions of people.
But a new report indicates that censors are redacting material from embassies’ posts, raising fresh questions about China’s imposition of its values on others, an effort that includes demands that airlines and hotels use language approved by Beijing when they refer to subjects such as Taiwan and Tibet.
With indications of China’s “censorship apparatus starting to go abroad,” it’s time for “like-minded foreign governments to draw a line in the sand somewhere,” said Fergus Ryan, who wrote the report “Weibo diplomacy and censorship in China” for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“And what better place to draw the line in the sand than with these Weibo accounts at these foreign embassies.”
Mr. Ryan found 51 instances of censorship between November, 2017, and January, 2018, on posts from 10 embassies in Beijing with major Weibo accounts. Just over half were from the U.S. Embassy, which said in a statement on Monday it “faces regular and routine blocking of social media posts in China.”
The report said that censors sometimes delete posts that mention topics considered sensitive, such as China’s human rights record or the names of top officials and dissidents. Other times, censors appear to be trying to limit the influence of foreign countries by counteracting the spread of content that might go viral.
No posts from the Canadian embassy, which was once the most-followed foreign mission on Weibo but has slipped to third place, were censored during that three months – a record that raises entirely different questions.
“If part of Canadian foreign policy is that Canada should be a determined advocate for liberal and universal values, then it stands to reason that there would be more instances of censorship,” Mr. Ryan said in an interview.
In at least two cases in the past month, Canadian embassy content posted to Weibo differs from what was on Twitter.
On May 3, the embassy marked World Press Freedom Day on Twitter with a post linking to a statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The same day on Weibo, it summarized elements of the statement and advocated “discussion” of issues like online free speech. But it did not include a link or several elements of Mr. Trudeau’s statement, including a reference to the importance of “an independent judiciary” in safeguarding press freedoms or a pledge that Canada will “stand against any violence, intimidation, censorship, and false arrests used to silence journalists.”
On May 22, the embassy posted to Twitter calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Tashi Wangchuk, an advocate for Tibetan-language education sentenced to five years in jail. That post does not appear on its Weibo account.
Global Affairs Canada had no immediate comment, and Sina Weibo did not respond to written questions.
It’s not clear if a post about Mr. Tashi was deleted from Weibo; it does not appear on freeweibo.com, which catalogues censored content. If the post was never made “that would raise questions because they know that Twitter – hardly anyone reads it in China,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China.
Weibo is one of the few ways to reach large numbers of Chinese people. But navigating censorship poses dilemmas for diplomats. “You always have to test the limits,” he said.
The Canadian embassy posts openly on Weibo about other matters China considers sensitive, including LGBTQ rights and what it said was its first-ever Muslim call to prayer, accompanied by a meal of Uyghur food.
Mr. Ryan believes evaluation of diplomats’ performance on social media should include how many times they are censored, to show they are “actually trying to speak outside the bounds of approved Chinese Communist party discourse.”
Censorship is only one problem with Weibo diplomacy. Another is the way angry nationalists frequently poison online discussion. Ying Jiang, a scholar at the University of Adelaide, analyzed more than 60,000 comments on embassy Weibo pages, and found that, for Canada and the United States, negative responses heavily outweighed positive.
“So the people who are following you are people who don’t like you,” she said. Their hostility can undermine the messages diplomats hope to send. “Sometimes, it’s negative diplomacy,” she said.
With reporting by Alexandra Li