Tea Leaf Nation

The World’s Leaders Are Avoiding Chinese Social Media

It's not hard to fathom why. India's Modi joined days ago -- and was promptly asked to 'give back' a part of Tibet.

(L to R) Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, China's President Xi Jinping, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Barack Obama, Myanmar President Thein Sein and Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi join other heads of states and international organizations to pose for a "family photo" during the G20 Summit in Brisbane on November 15, 2014. Australia is hosting the leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies for the G20 summit in Brisbane on November 15 and 16.     AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN        (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
(L to R) Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, China's President Xi Jinping, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Barack Obama, Myanmar President Thein Sein and Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi join other heads of states and international organizations to pose for a "family photo" during the G20 Summit in Brisbane on November 15, 2014. Australia is hosting the leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies for the G20 summit in Brisbane on November 15 and 16. AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 4, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his debut in the Chinese blogosphere, opening an account on microblogging platform Weibo that gained more than 44,000 followers within four days. Created ahead of Modi’s upcoming first visit to China on May 14, the social media account seems part of the prime minister’s effort to improve India’s image in the eyes of its giant neighbor, a bilateral relationship that has suffered due to territorial disputes and economic rivalry between the two Asian giants.

But while the NASDAQ-listed Weibo is one of China’s social media titans, with 176 million monthly active users, Modi is only the fifth current or former head of state to open an account there. Compare that to U.S.-based Twitter, which has 302 million monthly active users; according to a December 2012 report, 75 percent of all heads of state have Twitter accounts. Modi tweets too. With more than 12 million followers, he’s the second most-followed world leader, after U.S. President Barack Obama. That puts Modi in sparse company. The other four world leaders joining him on Weibo are Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

None of the Weibo debuts of the other four garnered the derision that Modi’s foray has. His first posts were greeted with an onslaught of hostile comments, with many commenters demanding that India give back to China the northern border region of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet. The territorial dispute has been a thorn in the side of China-India relations for years; during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, Chinese troops crossed into the disputed territory, overshadowing the rare summit between the Chinese and Indian heads of state.

Cameron’s Weibo account, with 823,000 followers, enjoys the most popularity of any foreign head of state, although he has posted only 34 times. Some users fondly dub him “Sherlock.”The British prime minister opened his Weibo account shortly before a December 2013 trip to China. Apart from his posts during that trip, which included a session in which he answered questions posed by Weibo users, his most popular posts were those in support of same-sex marriage, which England and Wales made legal in March 2014. His other posts relate mostly to holidays and tourism.

Joining in April 2012, Rudd was the very first current or former foreign head of state with a Weibo account, which now has 588,000 followers. Rudd speaks and reads Chinese, and at least some of his posts are personally written in Chinese script. The two-time Australian prime minister has been on Weibo long enough to have personally experienced some of Chinese media’s changing tides; his first post was a message, now removed, to now-disgraced celebrity China Central Television host Rui Chenggang, whose Weibo account now sits idle after his detention in July 2014.

Peres made quite a splash when he joined Weibo in April 2014. His new account reportedly received 50 million page views the first day it opened, and a Weibo representative told the Jersualem-based paper Times of Israel that the launch of Peres’ account was the largest in company history. The former Israeli president’s posts about Israeli deaths during the Israel-Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014 garnered particular attention in China, with many commenters expressing support for Israel, although others conveyed their dismay at the number of Palestinian casualties. Peres’ account now has more than 437,000 followers.

Like both Modi and Cameron, Maduro opened his Weibo account in preparation for his trip to China in September 2014. The Venezuelan president’s account, with just over 72,000 followers, features more stridently political commentary than those of the other heads of state. In one post in February 2014, with bloody student protests against his policies swelling in the streets of Venezuela, Maduro vowed to continue the “violent struggle against fascism,” his way of dismissing students protesters as counter-revolutionaries. (Maduro’s account now appears dormant; his last post was in July 2014.)

That’s it for heads of state on Weibo – not even Xi participates, although Chinese Communist Party-controlled media has carefully managed the Chinese president’s online image, and he has a dedicated Weibo fan account called “Study Xi Fan Club.” Despite the vitriol greeting Modi, his debut prompted some Chinese netizens to ask why their own top officials have not opened accounts. The likely answer is that while Chinese authorities appear to encourage government offices to run microblogs, they appear leery of allowing individual officials to engage with netizens directly, given the ever-present danger of saying the wrong thing and causing a massive public backlash.

None of this means foreign governments have eschewed Weibo. According to Sina news, an outlet owned by Weibo’s parent company, almost 200 individuals representing foreign governments or international organizations have opened accounts on the platform, while more than 400 government departments, embassies, and international organizations operate their own accounts.

But strict censorship may deter heads of state themselves from opening accounts on the Chinese social media platform. Official censors sift through content posted to Weibo in real time, deleting posts considered sensitive, potentially destabilizing, or critical of China’s government. High-profile Weibo users often face particular scrutiny; some of their accounts have been shut down. (Others have been jailed, a less likely outcome for a foreign head of state.) Political commenter Li Chengpeng, for example, rose to fame partly because of his Weibo account, which gained 7.4 million followers before authorities suspended it in July 2014. (Li is now a visiting scholar at Harvard.) Such a closure could mark a significant embarrassment for a foreign leader.

Avoiding trouble isn’t as simple as it sounds. Many users replied to Modi’s social media salutations with repeated demands to “Give us back South Tibet.” If Modi were to respond, defending India’s claim to the northern border region, it’s possible his post would have been deleted, or his account suspended. Cameron, for his part, did not post on Weibo for the entire duration of the Hong Kong protests, which pitted pro-democracy protesters in the former British colony against pro-Beijing interests. If leaders must choose between remaining mum when leadership is needed, or risking face-losing censorship, it’s small wonder few decide to participate.

AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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