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How the Obama Administration’s Narrative About Chen Guangcheng Unraveled, One Tweet at a Time

When Chen Guangcheng departed the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday with apparent guarantees that he would lead a safe and productive life in his native land, it seemed that a major international crisis had been averted. In a startlingly short period of time, American and Chinese officials had hammered out an agreement that seemed to protect Chen, while preserving the bilateral relationship. Chinese state media reported that Chen left on his own “volition,” while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Chen’s departure from the Embassy was in keeping with American “values.” Not long after, the U.S. Embassy released happy photos of a proud-looking Chen grasping the hand of a U.S. official. It was even reported that Chen, apparently overwhelmed with gratitude, declared that he wanted to “kiss” Secretary Clinton. 

Once upon a time, that would have sufficed to shape the public narrative of the crisis negotiations between China and the United States, at least for a while. Clearly, those days are over. On Wednesday, the governments’ preferred story quickly unraveled in the face of statements by Chen's friends via Twitter. Beijing and Washington may have become accustomed to an air of privileged secrecy around their dealings, but Twitter’s expanding role in China is making that harder than ever to maintain.

I should clarify at the outset that I am referring specifically to Twitter, not Sina weibo, China’s well-known domestic microblogging site. When Westerners speak about social media in China, they tend to mean weibo. Indeed, at first glance, Twitter couldn’t possibly compete. Twitter is estimated to have tens of thousands of mainland Chinese users, while weibo has hundreds of millions. This is largely due to the fact that Twitter is completely blocked in China, while weibo is only heavily censored. Weibo’s impact on Chinese society shouldn’t be underestimated. But in the early stages of the Chen debacle, Twitter played a more instrumental role in mediating China's relationship with the world.

China's Twitter users are a relatively well-defined community: After all, they have made an active choice to be there. In order to tweet, they must first jump over what is unaffectionately known as the “great firewall of China,” or the GFW. The GFW, most simply put, prevents certain web content from entering China. Whole sites, like Twitter and Facebook, are blocked entirely. And yet, while an accurate number of users is difficult to pin down, Twitter is home to a lively and influential Chinese community. They get there via tools like proxy servers or virtual private networks, which let residents of China access the Internet as if they were abroad.

Twitter is beyond the wall and thus inaccessible to the majority of the population. But that also means that it is not subject to Chinese censorship. This is largely why it has become a magnet for activists. Chinese Twitter users are not immune to posting frivolous statements along the lines of “what I ate for breakfast,” but the social networking site is more widely viewed as a forum to communicate bold statements on sensitive subjects. Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has called Twitter “a ray of light” in a dark room.

In that sense, it’s not surprising that Twitter revealed the darker aspects of Chen’s Embassy departure. The celebrations set off by Chen’s release grounded to a halt several hours later when his friend, Zeng Jinyan, tweeted the urgent, English-language missive: “GUANGCHENG TALKED TO ME. WHAT MEDIA REPORTED IS WRONG.” 

What followed was a flurry of increasingly disturbing Chinese-language tweets. Zeng Jinyan’s followers on Twitter learned that Chen didn’t ask to “kiss” Secretary Clinton, but rather to “see” her. Zeng went on to say, among other things, that Chen’s Embassy departure wasn’t nearly as voluntary it seemed. Rather, he had been told that if he didn’t leave, his wife would be sent back to Shandong, which clearly signaled an unhappy fate. As Zeng’s tweets were retweeted, people asked her to elaborate. Chen’s other friend Teng Biao chimed in with tweets of his own, claiming that Chen had been threatened into leaving the Embassy. Foreign reporters, many of whom are on Twitter, raced to catch up with these developments. Some spoke to Zeng to confirm that her tweets were real.

Within a few hours, the questions and accusations coursing through Twitter dampened the public mood surrounding Chen’s departure. Things turned even more grim once Chen himself finally managed to talk to the media. Collectively, the tweets dealt a decisive blow to both the Chinese and American governments. Washington, in the midst of a triumphalist PR campaign, was now on the defensive. Chinese journalist and prolific Chinese tweeter Michael Anti commented that for America, this public reaction was like “a slap on the face just when they want to dance.” 

Zeng’s decision to air her doubts on Twitter was no accident. Chinese blogger Isaac Mao spoke to Zeng shortly after her first dramatic tweet. Mao told me she was very nervous to speak to the public, and unsure if her statements would help Chen or cause him further harm. She wasn’t ready to go directly to the media, Mao said. Instead, she tested the waters on Twitter, which was a community she knew and trusted. The encouragement she found there emboldened her to say more. “She leaked more and more with the twittersphere’s responses,” Mao said. According to Mao, this chain reaction couldn’t have had the same impact on the heavily censored weibo. “They definitely chose Twitter,” he said of Zeng and Teng.

This is not to suggest that there was no weibo chatter about Chen. Weibo may not be as freewheeling as Twitter, but plenty of information manages to seep through. Chinese netizens have long found ways to evade the censors. This can be as simple as purposely miswriting words. Other times, the sheer speed and volume of information travelling through weibo makes it impossible to completely control. We saw this recently, as rumors of political intrigue surrounding the Communist official Bo Xilai spread like wildfire. And last year, when a train crashed outside Wenzhou, the silence of the railways ministry stood in stark contrast to the more than 20 million messages that appeared on weibo.

Anti acknowledges that weibo can shape the mindset of the Chinese masses. Twitter, however, is more of a “political platform.” Not only is Twitter a tightly networked circle of Chinese dissent, it is also a direct line to the foreign media. It thus can be an effective way for Chinese to send an SOS signal to the outside world. Several years ago, blogger Peter Guo famously declared that Twitter helped get him out of jail. He got in trouble for spreading word about a crime that allegedly involved local officials. After he was arrested, he tweeted for help via his mobile phone. His case quickly attracted domestic and international attention, and he was released a couple of weeks later.

Twitter’s role in the Chen debacle was not unequivocally positive, of course. Social media can facilitate misinformation, knee-jerk political responses, and general confusion. But as we saw over the last few days, Twitter also allows ordinary citizens to shape the interactions between the United States and China. In the twenty-first century, diplomacy is no longer a strictly governmental affair.

Emily Parker is senior fellow and digital diplomacy advisor at the New America Foundation, where she is writing a book about the Internet and democracy. She is a former member of Secretary Clinton's Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State.