About the Author: Robert Raines serves as the Assistant Information Officer for Electronic Media at U.S. Embassy Beijing.
An intense hush falls over the crowd of technicians, reporters, and embassy staff as the Secretary enters the room. Everyone rushes to their places – pens out, lights on, and cameras focused. I motion to show her the seat. She clips on her own microphone and turns her warm smile to the moderator, a prominent Chinese professor and expert on climate change. The webchat begins.
With nearly 300 million internet users, China just recently surpassed the U.S. as the country with the most internet users – here called “netizens” – in the world. These are the young, professional, educated, rising middle-class of China. They are unflinchingly proud of their country and the tremendous progress it has made over the last thirty years. They are also increasingly anxious – and increasingly able – to learn about and to engage friends and contacts around the world. Despite continued restrictions, the web is their tool to reach beyond boundaries, to network among themselves, and thereby to become the driving force for social, political, and economic development in China.
Engaging audiences like this is what Public Diplomacy (PD) officers live for. We support programs, exchanges, and press events so that we can share and explain, but also so that we can listen, learn and better understand.
Secretary Clinton is the first Secretary of State (in our memory here in the Embassy) to engage Chinese netizens in a webchat. The impact of her doing so – both in terms of substance and form – will be immense. The simple fact that the Secretary took the time to sit down and answer the questions of ordinary Chinese netizens will be seen as a profound gesture of respect and a powerful invitation to further open the doors of engagement between the U.S. and the people of China.