A cached version of the U.S. Embassy's Q&A on China's popular Zhihu.com.
Are American diplomats trying to subvert the Chinese government by answering questions on how to set up a food truck in the U.S. or buy cheap Broadway tickets?
An online public outreach effort by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was abruptly shut down this week in a case that analysts said highlights Beijing’s anxieties over “Western values” – as well as the suggestion that Washington may be a bit too skilled at soft power for its own good.
A social media posting by an account affiliated with the Communist Youth League added to the mystery. The youth league’s posting, which went online Tuesday, rounded up comments from Chinese Internet users accusing the U.S. diplomats of waging a “public opinion war” through the activity. The Q&A appears to have been taken down the same day.
Benjamin Weber, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, confirmed that the cultural-diplomacy activity and related accounts on China’s popular Zhihu.com question-and-answer website had been deleted and that the embassy was “disappointed by this action.”
“The embassy was invited by Zhihu.com to participate in a program about the United States,” Mr. Weber said. “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,” he said, adding that the embassy had raised its concerns to Chinese authorities about the deletion of the Q&A.
It wasn’t clear who was responsible for the deletions. Zhihu declined to comment. The Communist Youth League, the Chinese foreign ministry and the country’s top Internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, didn’t respond to faxed questions.
The deletion of the Q&A – dubbed “发现 · 美国,” or “Discover America” – comes as U.S.-China tensions are running high over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. It also comes amid a tightening of online speech under Chinese President Xi Jinping and a broader pushback against Western ideas; one recent campaign launched by Chinese authorities features cartoon-style posters warning citizens against falling prey to foreign agents.
The discussion thread for the U.S. Embassy Q&A had been viewed more than 1 million times on Zhihu and was followed by nearly 27,000 people as of late last week, according to a version of the site cached by Google on May 12.
A screenshot of the answer to a Zhihu question on surfing.
The posting described the Q&A as an online roundtable that would “delve into some of the most popular questions about America.” As part of the activity, eight people – including four officers from the embassy, two American professors and two Chinese nationals living in the U.S. – were invited to answer questions from Zhihu users, according to cached versions of the site.
The Zhihu accounts of the four U.S. diplomats – who were part of the embassy’s public affairs, education and consular sections – as well as those of the two professors participating in the Q&A have been deleted. Several of the participants contacted by China Real Time declined to comment.
“Even if someone has never been to the United States, it’s hard to say they haven’t been subject to a subtle influence from the other side of the Pacific,” the Q&A’s introduction text read. “America’s rich and diverse cultural atmosphere and the unique qualities of its cities are highly attractive to people from all walks of life.”
One user asked how to buy cheap Broadway tickets. Another asked whether young Americans like to study abroad, and which countries they prefer to go to. Others asked questions about California surfer culture, how to set up a food truck, and the various requirements of the U.S. visa process, such as why applicants are required to apply in person.
The responses from the U.S. participants were often lengthy, and some included photos and personal anecdotes from the diplomats’ and professors’ lives.
To a question about memorable experiences interviewing visa applicants in China, one of the U.S. diplomats responded: “Some of their families might not be rich or have a lot of guanxi, but the students have studied hard and been accepted at the best schools in the United States. When I think about them, I feel good about the future of our world.”
The Global Times, a tabloid run by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily newspaper, ran twoEnglish-language articles on the Q&A and its deletion. The paper didn’t run any stories in its Chinese-language version, however. Most other Chinese media outlets similarly made no mention of the incident.
Analysts said the deletion of the online Q&A wasn’t surprising given the Chinese government’s recent campaign against Western influence.
“Of course, the authorities would not consider the action by the U.S. Embassy as a friendly act,” said Willy Lam, a China politics scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“The U.S. considers this as a cultural outreach or promoting cultural understanding,” he said. “But Beijing sees this, I think, as an act of hostility, to try to poison the minds of young Chinese with American ideas – kind of what Mao Zedong used to call the ‘sugar-coated bullets’ of capitalism.”
The experiment in online diplomacy apparently didn’t sit well with some nationalistic Chinese netizens. In its WeChat posting, the account affiliated with the Communist Youth League highlighted some of the reactions to a post by a Zhihu user who described the U.S. diplomats as being “stationed” on the Chinese Q&A site.
“The U.S. unexpectedly makes use of those planted agents inside China, Chinese netizens and young people to destroy China,” wrote one user quoted by the Youth League account. “Only in this way could the U.S. revitalize its economy and keep its hegemonic status.”
Others, however, expressed something more akin to grudging admiration.
“This is real propaganda. This is brilliant propaganda,” one Zhihu user wrote. “And this is something that’s truly worth emulating.”
–Felicia Sonmez and Olivia Geng. Follow Felicia on Twitter
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."