Storytelling tweets engage millions in China

Unorthodox coverage of a Chinese president’s state visit reaches millions and gets picked up by state media
State visits are not sexy. Too formal, too orchestrated, too many restrictions. Especially for Chinese journalists. How to tell it in a direct and meaningful way? RNW’s Helan Online took up the challenge.

Bei Wang witnessed Xi Jinping and his celebrity wife set foot on Dutch soil, the first-ever such visit by a presidential couple from China.

She followed them closely, on their way to the tulip fields, to key nuclear and G7 talks, to the inevitable functions like a state banquet with the King of the Netherlands.

The RNW Media reporter posted her impressions on China’s Weibo microblogging website. They triggered many millions of views and thousands of comments.

What’s happening here?
Bei’s first challenge came in the Dutch capital’s Dam Square, where security agents hastily erected screens to keep pro-Tibet demonstrators out of Xi’s view. Bei realised she couldn’t cover what she saw. It would have compromised her reporting assignment. Too sensitive. Too controversial.

These tweets told the full story in a much more powerful way

Better to have others tell the story. So she posted a picture on the Weibo microblogging site along with the question: What’s happening here?

Within minutes, the answers started pouring in. The first ones came from Chinese expats in the Netherlands. They were commented on from China. Collectively, these tweets told the full story in a much more powerful way than a newspaper article could have done. Netizen journalism in a nutshell.

The photos posted on Weibo of the screens being put up during Xi Jinping's visit to Amsterdam. The posts generated a lively online discussion among Chinese followers. ©Helan Online

Unexpected hit
The response far exceeded her expectations. One post drew as many as 21 million views and 2,600 comments. And very remarkable: Bei’s photos were splashed in official newspapers.

"It’s the tone of voice that makes all the difference"

“The tweets were spontaneous, quick and slightly quirky, like the photograph I took of the state banquet,” Bei explains.

“All were in keeping with the friendly spirit of our Helan Online web platform. Some were quoted by state-run media in China, which proved their universal appeal. Personal, unpolished, authentic – it’s the tone of voice that makes all the difference.”


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