01 January, 2020

So Begins a New Age of Instagram Diplomacy


As it is New Year's Day I originally planned on writing a reflection up on the books I read in 2019 or something of that sort. Then I saw this:
Feel free to click through that and see all the pictures there published. Here is one of them blown up to full size:



That is Hou Yanqi, the ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Nepal. Here is what she posted onto twitter this morning (feel free to click through these ones too):
Ladies and gentleman, we have entered the era of instagram diplomacy.

Over the last few months the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has been pushing its diplomats to vigorously engage on global (as opposed to Chinese) social media channels. This has been most notable on twitter, and has resulted in two dozen diplomats or so adopting the persona of professional twitter troll. The United States does this, Trump says that, and voila! the Chinese diplomatic core is on the scene with a few sarcastic comments they hope might go viral. Hou takes the MOFA directive to grow her social media presence in a different direction: her model of public diplomacy is not the twitter brawler, but the Instagram influencer.

Welcome to the 2020s.

The genius of Hou's posts is hard to miss. There will be people on Zhihu and Twitter and who-knows-where-else who will criticize Hou for exoticizing Nepal and its people. Those criticisms are stupid. Read the comments beneath the tweets and you will see how the denizens of Nepal feel about being reduced to exoticized objects of aesthetic contemplation: they love it. People usually do. As long as we are being reduced to something lovely, most of humankind is happy, even eager, to be transformed into objects of romance and fantasy. Fantasy is flattering.

In this case the fantasy is a two way street. Consider what Hou is communicating with these two sentences and eight photographs. It goes something like this:
I am the ambassador of the People's Republic of China—beautiful, unpretentious, and utterly in love with your country. As charming as I may be, nowhere on earth makes my life more charming, more magnetic, more worth living, than the wonders I encounter in Nepal. Your country is a gift to me. It is a gift to humankind. It is a gift I am eager to spread with as many people possible. Thank you.
All of this is brilliant. With a few hours worth of sight seeing and a few minutes on meitu Hou has put the Nepalese ministry of tourism in her debt (note how she tags the minister of tourism in her first savlvo) and won the adoration of the Nepali public. What more could she ask for?

This will be copied. This will spread.

Which is not to say every Chinese diplomat will be able to play quite the same game Hou plays here. No overweight, 65 year old man will titillate like Hou does, and the Chinese diplomatic corp is chock full of overweight, 65 year old men. But the general lesson Hou's posts embody can be applied by anyone, no matter how wide their waistline: Aesthetics trump argument.

Many of our political beliefs boil down to a vision of the person we hope to be. This is as true for the libertarian gun nut as it is the BLM pavement pounder. These visions are felt before they are thought, communicated better in pictures than paragraphs, the stuff of aspiration, not intellect. Keen intellects will rationalize their aesthetic aspirations post-hoc, of course, but those rationalizations are ancillary adornments to a deeper thing.

Was this not a the grand lessons of the 2010s? We learned it with the election of Hope and Change in 2008; we were reminded of it in the attacks on "Pajama Boy" and the triumph of the Tea Party; we were taught it again and again as internet battles played out between Tumblr warriors and the men of 8Chan; we see it on the streets of Hong Kong, in the fires of Paris, in triumphs of Trump and the travails of all who oppose him. We live in an age where politics has been swallowed whole by the aesthetic.

Hou Yanqi understands this. Our public diplomacy programs will learn from people like her, or they will fall behind.

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If you would like to read some of my other observations on international diplomacy, you may find the posts "Do Mil-Mil Exchanges With the Chinese Do More Harm Than Good?," "What Do Cambodians Think About China?," "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," "Chinese Journalism and Chinese Soft Power, and "America Will Always Fail At Regional Expertise,"  of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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6 comments:

Alex said...

This is, however, something Americans historically do supremely well. It has been one of the most clichéd, because true, observations of the past 100+ years that even people who claim to despise America, or at least its government, are often very keen to enter into the aesthetic, get the look, and make the trend their own.

pi_neutrino said...

"Read the comments beneath the tweets and you will see how the denizens of Nepal feel about being reduced to exoticized objects of aesthetic contemplation: they love it. People usually do. As long as we are being reduced to something lovely, most of humankind is happy, even eager, to be transformed into objects of romance and fantasy. Fantasy is flattering."

Ain't that the truth. I live in New Zealand. I find it a somewhat typical, mundane kind of place. I like it. It's home.

But boy, to hear some Americans talk of New Zealand and New Zealanders, you'd think each and every Kiwi spends their mornings orally pleasuring every Elf in Middle-Earth. It's fetishising, it's exoticising, it's romanticising. But you know what? For the most part, it's just a bit of silly fun. And as you quite rightly point out, it brings in the tourism dollars. So many tourism dollars.

Though it also sends property prices through the roof.

Anonymous said...

If you haven’t already check out the US ambassador to Nepal’s twitter - he posted two very similar tweets

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts.

FYI, "corps" .

Roger Sweeny said...

Many of our political beliefs boil down to a vision of the person we hope to be. This is as true for the libertarian gun nut as it is the BLM pavement pounder. These visions are felt before they are thought, communicated better in pictures than paragraphs, the stuff of aspiration, not intellect. Keen intellects will rationalize their aesthetic aspirations post-hoc, of course, but those rationalizations are ancillary adornments to a deeper thing.

Somebody has been reading Mercier and Sperber.

Pickelhaube said...

>2020
>no flying cars, moon bases, privacy, or leisure society
>but doctors, lawyers, professors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, presidents, dictators, ambassadors, and bureaucrats of communist regimes all shitpost on Twitter

Fuck it. Fuck this gay reality. I want out.

I WANT OUT.