Is tweeting a breach of diplomatic function?

07 June 2012

China’s environmental official criticised the US Embassy in Beijing for tweeting data on air-pollution in China – data collected by air-sensors at the Embassy’s premises.[1] Chinese officials said that such practice is in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). This follows similar criticism by the Russian authorities of intensive blogging by the US ambassador in Russia.

The more social media is used in diplomacy, the more we can expect to hear of such cases.  Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is likely to be the most controversial, specifying that diplomats should act in accordance with the law of the receiving state and conduct their official business via the ministry of foreign affairs.

China’s reaction reflects their cautious approach to and potential dilemmas with the position of diplomats in the Internet era. The complaint was placed by the Vice-Minister for the Environment, not the ministry of foreign affairs. Usually, in the case of a breach of the Vienna Convention (1961) protests are lodged by diplomatic note or in more extreme cases by declaring foreign diplomat(s) persona non grata (in this case, the US environmental representative, perhaps?). The Chinese authorities decided to send a diplomatic signal (i.e. express uneasiness) without escalating the conflict.

It is also interesting to see how US officials replied. They justified the sharing of air-pollution data on the basis of assisting American citizens in China; something they are entitled to do according to international law (Article 5e of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations – 1963).

Such cases illustrate the underlying tension between the traditional perceptions of diplomacy as strictly the representation of one country in another, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the view that diplomacy has the much broader task of engaging in local social and cultural dynamics, especially when it comes to protection of global values (e.g. human rights, environment).

Discussion in the most recent  Diplo’s course on diplomatic law reflected differeing views about wheter the external environment in which diplomats operate has been radically changed by the Internet revolution or remains fundamentally the same under the surface. 

Can the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations sustain the test of time? Does the Internet era require a redrafting of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations? What will be the function and status of diplomats in the future?


[1] The media coverage of tweeting by the US Embassy (Washington Post and New York Times) contains one ambiguity. It refers to Twitter which is not widely used in China mainly due to the filtering. The main mini-blogging platform in China with millions of followers is Weibo.



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