Many officials have started using online social networks. The president of the European Council uses Twitter and even has an account with its Chinese counterpart, with which he has become surprisingly popular.
Nearly 300 million people in China have a microblog account. Since May 2011, Herman Van Rompuy has been one of them. He has a profile on Weibo, China's largest microblog site. At home, the President of the European Council is considered to be a rather plain person; it is likely that many Europeans don’t even know him. But in China, he has become an online superstar with his blog, which now has more than 185,000 followers. This is remarkable not only because he's a European politician but also because he writes in English or other European languages but not in Chinese.
Reaching out to the young
Van Rompuy says writing at Weibo has become like a habit. He thinks his popularity might be due to great interest, "especially among young Chinese, about Europe and in particular the great diversity of European culture."
Since the majority of Weibo subscribers are young, it is proving to be a great tool for communicating with them. The president's goal is to bring young Chinese men and women closer to Europe through dialogue on the Internet.
Encouraged by his success, Van Rompuy wants to promote the idea among his colleagues: "I certainly hope other European politicians will try to meet the Chinese public online…I will keep contact with some of my colleagues, so that I will not be the only one addressing the Chinese young public."
Van Rompuy posts details about his daily work life, for example information on conferences or what is being served for dinner at the conferences and what he thinks about Beijing's traffic jams. Most popular amongst his fans are, however, his own Japanese-style "haiku" poems.
"The Chinese are very interested in foreigners and curious to know what world leaders are thinking," Van Rompuy said. "I guess the Chinese audience has a positive image about politicians who are interested in poetry, philosophy, briefly speaking, who are not pure technocrats, not pure politicians."
Free exchange of ideas
For many Chinese technocrats, the Weibo site has become a thorn in their side. Compared to other media sites, it is here where a relatively free exchange of ideas has been allowed to take place - at least until now.
The dynamics of microblogging and its far-reaching implications have worried Chinese politicians. As a result, there are now plans to tighten censorship. Weibo users will, for example, be required to use their real names when opening an account. Nonetheless, Van Rompuy believes a complete shutdown of the website is unlikely. There is hope that the site's huge readership will keep it going and that ideas will continue to be freely exchanged, perhaps more creatively, in the face of efforts to censor bloggers.
'Catching up' in Europe
Van Rompuy’s popularity among Chinese netizens is in stark contrast to his popularity in Europe. On his Twitter account, he only has a fraction of the number of followers as on his Weibo account. Does that mean the Chinese are more interested in Europe than Europeans are? Van Rompuy sees it positively: "I now have around 45,000 followers (on Twitter), but a year ago I had zero. So we are catching up and I think there is a real interest in dialogue and interaction with politicians and especially with the president of the European Council."
Whether or not his poetry will become as popular in Europe as it is in China remains to be seen. In the run-up to the EU-China summit, which started on February 14, Van Rompuy greeted his Chinese fans with a new haiku poem: "China of today. Reinvents itself anew. Old, new - together."
Author: Florian Struth / tm / sb
Editor: Sarah Berning