Illustration: Craig Stephens
Tracey Fallon and Nicholas Ross Smith
Tracey Fallon and Nicholas Ross Smith

How China’s treatment of international students hurts its public diplomacy

  • International students remain barred from returning to China to continue their studies, and some are venting their frustration on social media
  • China’s inability to control user responses on Twitter is undermining its careful social media messaging and the reputation of its higher education sector
China has arguably invested more than any other country in public diplomacy initiatives during the last two decades. There have been glitzy events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which grabbed headlines and showcased China’s development to the world. There has also been heavy investment in education, both externally through Confucius Institutes and internally through efforts to attract international students to China’s higher education sector.

Turning China into a popular destination for international students has been a key objective of China’s public diplomacy strategy. In 2010, then Vice-President Xi Jinping told a group of students from Southeast Asia, “I hope that every one after their studies will become friendly emissaries who know and are friendly with China, building communication bridges between China and each Asean country, and be forever a friend of China.”

Such sentiments were reinforced at the end of May during the 30th study session of the Politburo. Xi stressed the importance of people-to-people exchanges in creating favourable foreign public opinion for China, saying: “It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority and continue to expand the international public opinion circle of friends who know China.” 

International students are an important component of China’s efforts to create international friendships, and the growth of China’s international student numbers is remarkable. From 2009 to 2018, China’s international student population more than doubled to nearly 500,000.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, China was closing in on the United Kingdom as the world’s second-largest recipient of international students, with the United States in top spot. At the same time, China’s top universities have shot up the international rankings, putting China ahead of Japan in high-end, reputable universities. 
However, the pandemic has interrupted China’s rise as an international higher education behemoth. The problem stems from China closing its borders to help control the outbreak. International students remain barred from entering the country since the decision to close the border was made in March 2020.
Understandably, many international students are dismayed they cannot resume their lives in China. Being able to continue their studies remotely in their own countries has not assuaged their frustration and anger.

One of the places where a groundswell of international students voicing their anger against China’s decision to continue preventing them from returning is on Twitter.

China has been increasingly using social media platforms in its public diplomacy efforts. Whereas Weibo is the domestic platform of choice, Twitter has emerged as the key platform for international audiences.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has had an official presence on Twitter since October 2019, although many of its officials and embassies have operated accounts for much longer. Spokesman Zhao Lijian joined in 2010 and has amassed nearly a million followers.


Chinese foreign ministry spokesman claims US army brought coronavirus to Wuhan

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman claims US army brought coronavirus to Wuhan

The MFA is playing the proverbial “two-level game” in the way it uses social media. Most of its social media content comes from the MFA’s regular press briefings.

While there is a consistency in topic coverage, the tailoring of the message diverges for the domestic audience versus the international one.

Take for example the recent international backlash against reports of  forced labour in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. On Weibo, the MFA took a combative stance and asserted China was an uncompromising great power that could no longer be humiliated.
On Twitter, the MFA initially took a more careful tone and sought to portray China as a responsible great power. One example was the tweeting of a video of MFA spokesman Wang Wenbin talking about China’s transparency regarding its Xinjiang policies, which was accompanied by the text, “The door to Xinjiang is always open.”

However, one user’s response is worth noting. “Door to Xinjiang is open g8 news. When will u open door for students. Please any news regarding this. You know all everything, condition of students. I don’t know why still quiet. It’s like watching the dying person. The China which I knew is not like that. At least allow PHD.”

While the MFA has few barriers in how it cultivates its messages on Weibo, it has little control over user responses on Twitter. To this end, displaced international students have been increasingly using hashtag activism to hijack China’s Twitter diplomacy.

A search of  #takeUsBackToChina on Twitter shows tens of thousands of tweets from international students voicing their frustration at not being allowed into China to resume their studies. Many of the tweets point out the inconsistencies in China’s international messaging while also questioning China’s humanitarianism. 
While the US has eased restrictions to allow certain international students through immigration for the fall term, China has remained quiet, save for a bilateral agreement with South Korea last summer. 
Worryingly for China, most of these tweets have originated from Pakistan. Pakistan has long been one of China’s most loyal friends – the relationship has been termed an “ iron brotherhood”. Pakistan has defended China’s Xinjiang policies, and the two have deepened ties through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Pakistan is one of the success stories of China’s public diplomacy efforts and a rare bright spot at a time when China’s international reputation has been in free fall. However, the growing frustration and anger of Pakistani students barred from returning to China could undo much of this. 

The main challenge of playing a two-level game in diplomacy is managing the constraining role a country’s domestic setting plays in its foreign policy. However, China is arguably encountering the inverse of this with an international audience banding together to challenge China’s policymaking.

This could be a headache for China’s policymakers. The growing Twitter activism against China is undermining its careful social media messaging on Twitter and the reputation of its higher education sector, and it has the potential for wider international security ramifications.

Tracey Fallon is an assistant professor of China studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. Nicholas Ross Smith is an associate professor of international studies at the university