Beijing's Public Diplomacy Challenge
Members of the Confucius Institute
Image Credit: REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez

Beijing's Public Diplomacy Challenge


Every two years China’s quest to boost the popularity of its brand is marked by a well- publicized media event: the Beijing Olympics 2008, EXPO 2010 in Shanghai, the Miss World contest 2012 in Ordos. Looking ahead, China plans to host the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing and a global tourist summit in 2014. Moreover every year, the People’s Republic plays hosts to somewhat lesser events, such as the Formula-1 Grand Prix, Beijing Auto Salon or WTA-China Open. No country in Asia has devoted more resources than China has over the last five years to promoting and improving its national image. But has the strategy been effective?

The fundamental message of Chinese public diplomacy in recent years is to tell the world (especially the Western component) about Chinese values, such as non-interference in domestic affairs, and to try to win acceptance for those values. To do that, Beijing founded the Confucius Institute in 2004, with 327 departments in 93 countries to promote Chinese language learning and the culture of China. China Central Television (CCTV) annually spends billions of dollars to support international broadcasting in English (CCTV-9), Spanish (CCTV-E), French (CCTV-F), Arabic (CCTV-العربية), and Russian (CCTV-Русский), highlighting a positive agenda. In 2010, the news agency Xinhua launched the 24-hour English channel China Network Corp (CNC), while print media China Daily (circulation 1 million), People’s Daily (3 million), Global Times (1 million) and Shanghai Daily try to compete with the Western press.

However, a large number of channels does not guarantee an audience that will listen, especially given that most of the reporting in these outlets offer only a uniformly positive view of Chinese policy. In the modern information age, the policy of the PRC mass media looks outdated and short-sighted, with any gap between declared principles and actual policy likely to buffet China’s image.

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Herein lies the problem with Chinese public diplomacy: the incompatibility of the core audience in Western countries and the information product of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. This core audience consists of educated, urban people 16-35 years old who will play roles in government or business organizations. Beijing offers them programs about Chinese culture and language with ideologically driven news. However, this audience gets most of its information from the internet and social media. China, however, has strict controls over the web and blocks access to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other outlets.

Moreover, the history and culture of ancient China or Confucius are unlikely to excite the interests of young people, who are more interested in what is happening in China today. Beijing is focusing solely on its culture or civilization, while overlooking current issues such as policymaking or pollution. This is an example of why it is so difficult to build a national brand using state institutions alone. Examples such as “Cool Britannia,” South Korea’s “Sparkling Korea” or Kosovo’s “Kosovo, the Young Europeans” demonstrate that high-budget advertising sponsored by a government but not connected to real people is not effective at expanding soft power. China has the financial resources to get its message out, but lacks freedom of speech, which could damage the existing vertical power structure. China’s strategy is compromised by the absence of partnerships between the government and society, businesses and individuals that could Chinese ideas in a way that is not propaganda.

When it comes to coordinating among policy, economics and society the U.S. example is worth noting. The current conflict between Washington and the EU triggered by spy scandals has done considerable damage to the U.S. image, but the White House possesses one incomparable advantage that lets it smooth out governmental bloopers: Silicon Valley. No matter what international missteps the U.S. makes, IT giants are capable of neutralizing them over time. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and others have shown the world that the United States is a place where people are free to create and profit from their personal abilities and the market economy. Collaborative efforts like only underscore this freedom. Every time a new iPhone or iPad is released, to much global excitement, Washington earns soft power points. As Lee Kuan Yew has said, China can be “the world’s largest economy, but will it become the most admired and the most influential society? Will it have the technology, the standard of living, the quality of life, the lifestyle that others want? Have they got songs, lyrics and ideas that engage people? That is going to take time.”

Unfortunately China does not have similar instruments of influence at the moment, and as such cannot offset the negative repercussions for its image of events such as bird flu, the awarding of the Confucius Peace Prize to Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the escalation of tensions in Tibet, Taiwan, the Spratly islands or the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Beijing’s monopolization of public diplomacy leaves no chance for enthusiasts to emerge in China who could create an effective equivalent to Japan’s manga diplomacy, which has the support of millions of Japanese and the local animation industry. If there is no space for creativity, can China have it’s own Psy (the popular South Korea singer whose hit “Gangnam Style” enjoyed more than one billion views on YouTube) who will then meet with UN Secretary-General, the U.S. President and perform at Times Square?

In fact, China tried for its own Times Square exposure in 2011, when it launched a promotional video “Experience China” featuring Chinese celebrities such as Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, taikonaut Yang Liwei, and pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi. The expensive video was not successful. One factor was American antagonism towards communist China, but another was the choice of celebrities. While Jackie Chan and Yao Ming are well-known in the U.S., the first taikonaut and the piano virtuosos are not, notwithstanding their very real talents and achievements.

China does have potential “leaders” in public diplomacy, but does not make full use of them and fails to provide opportunities to build a foreign audience around them. As a consequence, the promo video looked like propaganda. Despite such significant personalities as Zhang Yimou (The Road Home), Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights) and Mo Yan (winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature), the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China makes no effort to integrate them into a general strategy of soft power growth. Hao Jiang Tian, the Chinese opera singer who now lives in the U.S. has shown what is possible, with his I Sing Beijing initiative, in which he teaches Westerners to sing Chinese opera. Yet Beijing continues to count on exaggerated patriotic movies as The Founding of a Republic or Beginning of the Great Revival where every communist acts like a superhero. Both movies have predictably flopped with foreign audiences. Ironically, it is American features such as Kung Fu Panda or 2012 that have done more to stimulate interest in China.

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