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An intermestic approach to China's public diplomacy: a case study of Beijing's COVID-19 communication in the early stages

Zhao Alexandre Huang (Université Paris-Nanterre, Nanterre, France)
Rui Wang (Communication University of China, Beijing, China)

Journal of Communication Management

ISSN: 1363-254X

Article publication date: 27 December 2022

36

Abstract

Purpose

The aim of this study was to examine the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak and the international communication management of Chinese diplomats as a case for extending the definition of intermestic public diplomacy. The goal was to reveal how Beijing subtly used both domestic and foreign social media to organize a network for communication about COVID-19 and purposefully soften the highly centralized and hierarchical political propaganda of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Design/methodology/approach

Based on the literature on digital public diplomacy, the authors applied the existing concept of intermestic to Chinese politics in order to demonstrate the digitalization of public diplomacy, along with its forms and strategies under an authoritarian regime. A hybrid methodology combining quantitative network analysis and qualitative discourse analysis permits examination of China's intermestic online communication network dynamics, shedding light on how such an intermestic practice promoted Chinese values and power to international publics in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis.

Findings

The authors’ findings extend the implications of intermestic public diplomacy from a democratic context to an authoritarian one. By analyzing the content of public diplomacy and para-diplomatic social media accounts in China and abroad at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the authors outlined China's early crisis management, explaining its intermestic public diplomacy transmission modes and strategies. Moreover, the authors identified changes in the narrative strategies of Chinese diplomats and journalists during this process.

Social implications

The findings of this study underline that Beijing established a narrative-making virtual communication structure for disseminating favorable Chinese strategic narratives and voices through differentiated communication on domestic and foreign social media platforms. Such intermestic communication strategies were particularly evident and even further weaponized by Beijing in its large-scale Wolf Warrior diplomacy in the spring of 2020. Thus, the study’s findings help readers understand how China digitalized its public diplomacy, its digital communication patterns and strategies.

Originality/value

On the one hand, geopolitical uncertainty and the popularity of social media have contributed to the evolution of the intermestic model of public diplomacy. This model allows actors to coordinate homogenous and differentiated communication practices to deploy their influence. On the other hand, the authors did not examine how intermestic audiences perceive and receive public diplomacy practices. In future studies, scholars should measure the agenda-setting capacity of diplomatic actors by examining the effects of such intermestic communication efforts.

Keywords

Citation

Huang, Z.A. and Wang, R. (2022), "An intermestic approach to China's public diplomacy: a case study of Beijing's COVID-19 communication in the early stages", Journal of Communication Management, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-04-2022-0042

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited

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