25 March 2019
Social media savvy Clifford Hart is a great model for diplomats in other countries. He set a new tone for interational relations as an "iDiplomat". Photo: Facebook
Social media savvy Clifford Hart is a great model for diplomats in other countries. He set a new tone for interational relations as an "iDiplomat". Photo: Facebook

How Clifford BB set a new tone for diplomacy

Clifford Hart, whom local netizens fondly call Clifford BB, served out his term as US consul general to Hong Kong last month.

He was probably the most high-profile, the most popular and the best-known US representative ever to serve in Hong Kong.

Before he left, Hart held a live video Q&A on Facebook, then posted a humorous farewell clip.

The video immediately went viral on the internet.

Hart’s superb social media diplomacy will make good teaching material on international relations.

There are a dozen splendid things we can say about the video.

1. It reflects a great sense of humour and shows that his job was as challenging as it was important — so important that his role was comparable with that of the US ambassador to China.

2. The clip creates an impression in the US that Hong Kong people liked him.

3. It implicitly stresses the American values of respect for human rights and freedom — as opposed to oppression in China — by using photos of his participation in local events such as those that support gay rights and anti-slavery.

4. His fluent Cantonese alone was enough to knock the socks off the local audience.

5. The clip shows his great respect for — and interest in — Hong Kong’s indigenous culture. Such a “bottom-up” approach comes in stark contrast to the “top-down” style of Beijing officials who often talk down to us on TV during their visits.

6. The video uses the famous lines from the 1994 classic comedy A Chinese Odyssey, starring Stephen Chow, and makes fun of the Ming General Sushi, one of Hong Kong’s favorite sushi restaurants.

It shows that he knows what’s hot and what’s not in Hong Kong just like an average Hong Kong person.

7. Props such as the monkey doll, the statue of Guan Yum (a Buddhist goddess) and the magic box reflect the typical general perception of traditional Chinese culture among most Americans, showing Hart is very much in touch with popular US sentiment.

8. The fact that Hart has made good use of social media to boost his image as a professional diplomat and that of his country shows that he is adaptable to the ever changing internet era.

9. The clip is full of typical Hollywood humor. For example, the voice actress playing Guan Yum addresses him as “Clifford BB”.

10. Not a single picture of Hart shaking hands with a Hong Kong or Chinese official appears in the video, again a stark contrast to the rigid and almost routine style of Hong Kong and Chinese officialdom.

11. Hart succeeds in making viewers feel that he truly understands and loves Hong Kong. The way he comes across in the video helps him build his image as a good old friend of the people.

12. At the end of the video, Hart walks out of the consulate general building alone, carrying his own backpack, with no entourage nor any farewell ceremony. The message is clear: Government officials are average people like anyone else.

By contrast, I can hardly think of any top government official in Hong Kong who carries his own backpack.

Whether or not you like the video, you can’t deny that Hart showed his common touch, something Beijing officials and our own government leaders have failed to do.

Of course, the video had some political and diplomatic calculus behind it.

And it is in Washington’s interest for Hart to leave a good impression on Hong Kong, especially amid rising tensions in US-China relations.

Regardless, however, Hart’s video signaled the dawn of a new era in international diplomacy, in which diplomats have to increasingly rely on social media to get their message across.

Perhaps in five years, “iDiplomacy” will be the norm.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 29

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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