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:
True beauty always touches the deep heart. Beautiful Nepal with history, diversity and nature deserves a visit. Wish #VisitNepal2020 successful! @yogesbhattarai
२०२० नेपाल भ्रमाण वर्ष सफलताको शुभकामना ! pic.twitter.com/uXXnYWu7Iv
— Ambassador Hou Yanqi (@PRCAmbNepal) December 31, 2019
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):
Happy New Year! On behalf of the Embassy of China in Nepal, I would like to wish Nepali people good health and luck, wish Nepal harmony and prosperity! #VisitNepal
नयाँ बर्षको शुभकामना!नेपाली जनतालाई सुस्वास्थ्य र खुशियालीको कामना गर्दछु,नेपालको सद्भाव र समृद्धिको कामना गर्दछु! pic.twitter.com/WlzEaVQAmP
— Ambassador Hou Yanqi (@PRCAmbNepal) January 1, 2020
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.