Andrew is Mailman Group’s CEO. He has been in China for the past eight years and has founded several sites including Mailman’s Social Media, Transition China, Fanstang, KAWO, and MVIP. He’s @ACMailman on Twitter.
The Chinese government is well-known for its strict watch on all forms of media to ensure its reputation and power stay intact. But the advent of the internet and the boom in social media platforms and mobile technology development has made it more difficult to control. Though the initial attitude of Beijing towards social media was one of suspicion, I’ve seen it change into embracing social media as a method towards popular political legitimacy. As a result, in addition to just censorship, the government has started a more subtle approach of producing its own content and working to maintain a specific public image for its own “brand” via social media, pointing to a far more sophisticated PR machine used to steer the nation’s online conversation than most would suspect.
Rather than sticking to its traditionally distant character, the government seems to be attempting to incorporate more direct interactions to abolish the perception of a remote government. The aim is to connect to its people more – online, at least. Three years ago, a policeman named Wang Haiding took to Sina Weibo for his work, at the Jiangning district police. Ever since, he’s been monitoring the Jiangning account (pictured below) to dispel rumors about crimes and connect to his audience. Wang’s Weibo shows success on this front, as he has over 640,000 followers who ‘like’, retweet, and comment on his often-humorous posts (posting questions that include, “Why do I look so ugly in my ID card?”), including a heartfelt thank-you post for his readers on the third anniversary of the account.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has maintained a Weibo account since 2011 and now has over seven million followers. The department launched an offcial account on WeChat in 2013 to reach even more people. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs updates Chinese travelers via Weibo, which allows netizens to comment on and retweet information.
Recently, two more social media accounts, on WeChat and less well known messaging app EasyChat, launched with the sole purpose of educating people about the Communist Party of China (CPC). Delivering news about the Party, updating on current campaigns, and educating about Chinese culture and history in general is more personal through these private messaging applications.
In addition to official accounts, the government has also put in effort to make its leaders seem more down-to-earth and relatable – and they’re doing so more organically than before. Though politicians in countries such as the US are often seen around in the daily bustle, it is not the tradition for Chinese politicians and leaders. So when Xi Jinping, the current President, visited a bun shop with no announcement, prior security measures, or extravagance, the images shared via social media were met with excitement – staged or not.
Social media slip-ups
Like any brand with an online presence, however, government officials have to be wary of their increasingly digital-savvy netizens. A few slip ups have gone viral on Chinese social media, bad news for any brand, since the internet has both a great reach and a vast memory.
The sighting of another official, Wu Tianjun, on the subway came soon after Xi’s sighting – but it didn’t go down so well. Wu’s subway ride was recorded and broadcast by Zhengzhou Television, and that was quickly ridiculed online for being an awkward, obviously staged outing. And in probably one of the worst photoshops I’ve ever seen, authorities in Anhui province posted a photo of three officials visiting an elderly woman in a nursing home (for ants, apparently).
Several of these embarrassing PR disasters have resulted in the government searching for Photoshop experts as Beijing realizes more and more the power of social media to shape its public perception.
On the whole, Xi’s government has taken a far more subtle approach to the digital realm than his predecessors. That makes sense as MIT’s Technology Review notes, that allowing a space for citizens to air their views and for officials to visibly respond, even if filtered, results in a higher level of satisfaction among citizens.
Beijing is actively cultivating a more approachable image through seeding images, comments, and editorials across social media, while simultaneously taking a firmer approach with “encouraging” newspapers to promote the party’s core values and rolling out some ambiguously-worded journalism and social media laws.
The Chinese government has realized the importance of not only “branding” itself, but also the potential of social media. Though censorship is still a big part of China’s reputation control, it is also actively putting out a public image and brand that shows its relate-ability, accessibility, and competence. China continues to control its perception with meticulous care.