Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Propaganda Leaflets Surviving

I am trying desperately to catch up at least a little on my reading of all the feeds and blogs to which I subscribe. Naturally, the most valuable and often the most entertaining are the posts by John Brown. These always contain a considerable amount of information and insights which reveal the diverse approaches to the study and practice of public diplomacy and international communications.

Going back to November I have identified an interesting pattern developing in the Korean Peninsula, and I will be interested to follow how this thread evolves in the wake of North Korea’s current power transition. These reports describe how North Korea has entered the 'Twitter Era' for its propaganda, despite the internet being strictly off-limits to ordinary North Koreans. The propaganda website, Uriminzokkiri, has added Facebook and Twitter tags but the 'share' function is restricted to posts criticising South Korea and the US. Meanwhile, the propaganda regime also posts propaganda footage to Youtube. This suggests that new communications technologies are available in the North and that someone within a government agency has the technological understanding of how to use them. This is quite revealing for a society we are told is somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of the world.   

Meanwhile, South Korean propagandists are still using the old Cold War technique of distributing to North Korea leaflets attached to helium balloons. A military source in November noted the decision to suspend this campaign 'was partly made because the wind currently blows in the wrong direction.' It is understandable why South Korea would resort to such ancient and unreliable techniques given the proximity of the target audience and the inability of North Koreans to access other means of communications. But it is fascinating to think that as Pyongyang finally embraces the information revolution - albeit in a limited way - South Korea is forced to depend on balloons and leaflets.

All of this reminds me of a visit to Jinmen in 2010. Jinmen is an island that belongs to Taiwan but is actually closer to the People’s Republic of China. Jinmen was at the centre of military action between China and Taiwan in the 1950s and was subject to periodic shelling of propaganda leaflets until the 1970s (Taiwan reciprocated in kind). Jinmen was the focus of Taiwan's propaganda activity and remains a military garrison to this day.

In one of the many museums dedicated to the outbreak of war between the two sides in the 1950s, there is a fascinating exhibition of propaganda which includes descriptions of Taiwan’s leaflet campaign in China. A map showed just how far balloons sent from Jinmen penetrated the Chinese mainland (I attach a photo to this blog). I was very suspicious of this map; given the size and terrain of the PRC, could balloons really reach so far inland? And how did Taiwan's psyops teams know where they went and what happened to them? I asked my contacts at Taiwan's Political Warfare College about this and they assured me that balloons could travel that far depending on the gas used to fill them, while Nationalist agents in the mainland could verify their reach. I am not convinced, and I remain suspicious that this is an example of propaganda about propaganda. But the Cold War historian in me is smiling in a self-satisfied way that in the age of blogs, twitter and Facebook, balloons and leaflets are still being used.       


Monday, 19 December 2011

Al-Shabaab, Twitter and propaganda in the new information age

Last week I read a report that Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group in Kenya, has launched its very own Twitter account. It is the latest in the long line of terrorist organisations with links to Al-Qaeda, that understands how new communications technologies are essential to fight the war of ideas. It posts in English, suggesting that its intended audience is global and that its objective is international propaganda (one tweet asked, 'How can one lay down his arms when his enemies are grinding their swords to terminate him? No to negotiations undr [sic] invasion'). The tweets also provide a detailed account of its military operations and regularly uses photos to reinforce the narrative. The Kenyan military has responded with its own Twitter feed, and so the propaganda war in Africa enters a new phase of claim and counter claim.

Reading these reports reminded me of what I have said in a chapter in a forthcoming book, edited by Rachel Utley, reflecting on international relations ten years after 9/11. Asked to comment on the information landscape, I noted that the power of information in the asymmetrical war of ideas has not been overlooked by political elites at the highest levels in Washington, and that there are a number of distrubing admissions: In 2007 US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, noted ‘It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications’. In one of the most famous quotations of the war on terror Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ Four years later, Washington’s political elite were still pondering the US’s incapacity to compete in the communications landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘We are in an information war and we are losing that war.’

The coalition has spent ten years playing catch-up. The initial communications response to the terrorist information networks after 9/11 was the creation of the Al-Hurrah (‘The Free One’) Arabic language television channel at a cost of $60 million per year (it is now officially the least watched station in the Middle East). The US also created Radio Free Afghanistan, Radio Farda for Iran and Radio Sawa (‘Together’), the latter broadcasting a diet of popular music and some news in a deliberate effort to target younger audiences. Yet, these stations, clearly created by Americans, had little or no credibility and could compete with neither the media the terrorists were using (the internet) nor the message (which identified themes which resonate with disaffected Muslim audiences). One former director of the Voice of America, Robert Reilly, was particularly scathing about such programming on US-created stations: ‘We do not teach civics to American teenagers by asking them to listen to pop music so why should we expect Arabs and Persians to learn about America or democracy this way? The condescension implicit in this nearly all-music format is not lost on the audience that we should wish to influence most – those who think.’ Similarly Al-Hurrah has been criticised by US diplomat William Rugh (2005) for ‘looking much more like the old-style TV channels that were totally controlled by authoritarian governments and that served primarily as propaganda arms of those governments’. Whenever possible, Arab audiences will turn to Arab media, like Al-Jazeera, providing news and information by Arabs and for Arabs.

In the age of new media, understanding and distinguishing fact from fiction, propaganda from information, verified from unconfirmed news is more difficult than ever before. Moreover, in the age of the internet, where does ‘domestic’ end and ‘international’ begin? Is a government sufficiently appreciative of the fact that it can now speak to multiple constituencies across the world simultaneously, amplifying the need to make sure that all its voices speak with consistency? In Iraq, we are told, insurgents ‘often had a cameraman at the site of a car-bombing, and within minutes of the explosion, the images appeared on the internet without having to be vetted in any approval process and with little regard for the distinction between news and propaganda. Countering this type of instant “news” … was almost impossible’ (Wright & Reese, 2010: 288).

I would suggest that part of the problem of the US's failure is a refusal to appreciate how today’s communications environment in so fundamentally different from that of yesterday. In some ways the recognition that it is useful to combine both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media is encouraging, as when Hillary Clinton told the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2011, ‘… while we’re being active in online new media, we have to be active in the old media as well’ (quoted in Pincus, 2011). In parts of Afghanistan where illiteracy levels still reach almost 95% and where there is low internet penetration, it is appropriate to develop information strategies centred on television and radio broadcasting.

However, this demonstrates that, ten years after 9/11, we are still persuaded to label communications technologies as ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, when rather the reality is that platforms have converged. It is now possible to watch TV, listen to the radio and read newspapers anywhere in the world and from anywhere in the world, on a computer; just as TV news encourages its viewers to engage with them via Facebook and Twitter, and send them photos of news stories happening in their locale. Moreover, the ‘new’ media are ‘new’ only for a generation born before the end of the 1980s; the principal targets of information, public diplomacy and propaganda in the War on Terror have grown up in a world of Google and Youtube and have no recollections of a time before email and the pressure to be ‘online’ dominated our daily lives. Until this is recognised and the supposed dichotomy between old and new media disappears, progress in communication will be limited. The situation is certainly not helped by stories that a Crown Court judge in the UK who, presiding over a trial of three young Muslims accused of distributing propaganda over the internet in support of Al-Qaeda, confessed during the proceedings: ‘The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a website is.’

New communications technologies blur the traditional boundaries between source, producer and consumer, and this is the frontier of a new information space in which governments and militaries must work and combat their enemies. The information sphere is a battleground that militaries ignore today at their peril. Official communications must compete with an ever proliferating range of new voices, and to succeed, they will only do so by being credible; image and reality must be consistent. Moreover, believing that how you are perceived is more important than what you do is the biggest mistake of all. The issue is not about presentation. It is about policy. Perhaps any measured reflection on information operations ten years after 9/11 would do well to begin with this admission.


Pincus, W. (2011), ‘New and old information operations in Afghanistan: What works?’, The Washington Post, 28 March.

Rugh, W. (2005), ‘Broadcasting and American Public Diplomacy,’ Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal 14 (Spring).

Wright, D.P. & T.R. Reese (2010), On Point II. Transition to the New Campaign: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003-January 2005 (Milton Keynes: Books Express).

Thursday, 8 December 2011

More on Sesame Street

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am a huge fan of Sesame Street, the long-running American television show which teaches children literacy, numeracy and life-skills such as kindness, tolerance and friendship.

On 11 April I commented on the launch of a version of Sesame Street in Pakistan. Now, Big Bird and his friends have made the trek to Afghanistan in a version of the programme called Baghch-e-Simisn. This is a co-production between the non-profit Sesame Workshop and Moby Media, an Afghan company that has made a big impact on the flow of international cultural products into the country, having been responsible for importing such western formats as Idol and Deal or No Deal. The US State Department has also provided some funding.

As expected, Baghch-e-Simisn will be modified for the specific cultural context Sesame Street will encounter in Afghanistan. So scenes in which Ernie is barking like a dog and encouraging his friend, Bert, to copy him will not be shown, as a dog is considered unclean. Moreover, in trying to impart the fundamentals of health and safety, the production team had difficulty finding a building site on which the workers wore the kind of protective clothing one would see in New York.

This is the beauty of Sesame Street; it is not afraid to take risks, to change for local audiences and use entertainment for education. In Afghanistan, where the education infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, such initiatives are welcomed. There will always be the nay-sayers who proclaim 'cultural imperialism', but Sesame Street's success and its genuine apolitical agenda demonstrate that international communications and American media products may actually do some good after all. Long may it continue!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

What price Tesco?

There was an interesting report in The Guardian newspaper (25 November 2011, which described the recent flood of global supermarket chains into India. The report presents local reaction and suggests the possible positive and negative effects (lower prices for consumers, investment, infrastructure versus lower prices for farmers, job losses and 'the end of traditional shopping'). Opening up to such foreign chains as Tesco and Carrefour will be problematic because of local politics, and it is possible that investors will face tough conditions.

I have never been a fan of the cultural imperialism thesis. I find it far too simplistic, and my own observations throughout East Asia convince me that global forces will operate alongside local, and that consumers will always prefer local produce provided prices are reasonable and quality/diversity are maintained. This is as true for television and movies as it is for food. I also disapprove of cultural imperialism's pessimistic view of local identity which basically sugggests that local identities are fragile, vulnerable and easily dominated or even supplanted by foreign cultures. Again, I see little evidence for this and I have confidence in coexistence and the tenacity of local cultures to survive. The best book I have read on this topic is James Watson's Global Arches East: McDonalds in East Asia (Stanford University Press, 1998; 2006). This is an engaging and convincing anthropological study of consumer behaviour in East Asia which challenges the idea of McDonalds operating as a foot soldier of cultural imperialism. In fact, McDonalds has been forced to adapt to local markets to reflect consumption habits, and not just in terms of the food offered. The experience of eating is as different in Taipei and Hong Kong as it is in Beijing and New York. Watson and his team of contributors also place McDonalds in specific cultural contexts and connect the experience of eating their with local approaches to work, family, education and ideas of 'fast food'.

Will Tesco or Carrefour change shopping behaviour in India? Of course they will, but probably only for the affluent middle classes. I suspect though that local markets and local approaches to consumption will still dominate the market place (literally and metaphorically). Moreover, partnerships such as that between Tesco and India's Tata, and Debenhams and Planet Retail suggest a more nuanced understanding of business strategies. After all, as McDonalds success is East Asia demonstrates, adaptation is the key to survival. I expect that yet again shrieks of horror about 'cultural imperialism' will sound hollow, as well as over thirty years out of date.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Chinese journalism and American soft power

On Monday November 7 Xinhua, China's state-owned news agency, celebrated its 80th birthday. Its efforts to create what China's propaganda chief, Li Changchun, described as a 'top-ranking international media organization' have been well documented, with a lot of attention devoted to Xinhua's ambition to follow the example of Al-Jazeera. I am very sceptical of this as regular readers of my blog and my other work on China's international outreach will know, so I will not rehearse those arguments again here.

What is worrying is a proposal by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and two other Republican congressmen to require parity in the numbers of Chinese journalists in the US and American journalists in China. But here I must make an important qualification; the bill, if passed, will only refer to journalists from state or government-owned news organisations. Apparently the US in 2010 issued visas to 650 Chinese journalists working for state-owned media, while two US journalists from government-owned media were issued vias in China.

There are two problems with this:
First, parity is impossible. The US does not have a tradition of state-owned media; the only journalists this bill would affect are those working for the Voice of America and other US international broadcasting outlets such as Radio Free Asia (whose journalists cannot work in China anyway).

Second, by seeking to restrict the number of Chinese journalists in the US, the bill will damage American soft power. 'An eye for an eye' is a dangerous strategy to win hearts and minds, and by limiting the number of visas for Chinese journalists, the US is sending a strong signal to China which undermines its own soft power credentials. Not only is freedom of the press a core value, but also the proposal risks the opportunity to showcase those same core American values to Chinese journalists and their audiences. My advice: Don't throw the baby out with the bath-water.      

Friday, 28 October 2011

Architecture of Conflict

I attended a very interesting conference at Bradford's National Media Museum yesterday called The Architecture of Conflict. It was about the militarisation of space and focused particularly on photographic representations of the subject.

The first discussion was about the work of Donovan Wylie who photographed Belfast's infamous Maze Prison before it was torn down. Apparently he was told by the guards and the architects that the outlay of the prison was designed to confuse and disorient, and was layered with different terrains which would pose obstacles to prisoners trying to escape. This is in addition to the multiple watchtowers to try and achieve the panoptican effect. I found this interesting as an example of architectures of control; and it occurred to me that in the design, the Maze Prison was intended more as an instrument of psychological warfare and counter-insurgency than a prison for convicts. It is clear why the idea of the Maze resonates on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland as representative of a government's reaction to a political struggle. It reminded me of the work of my old friend Susan Carruthers on counter-insurgency in Malaya ('Winning Hearts and Minds,' published in 1995) and Michael McClintock's discussion of Vietnam ('Instruments of Statecraft', 1992).   See this article in the Guardian newspaper,

Also I must add there is a must-see exhibition currently showing at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester about War Correspondents. Exhibits include the record player that Richard Dimbleby used to record his broadcasts of the D-Day landings, and the Burqa that John Simpson wore when the BBC 'liberated' Kabul. You can see more information here:

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Beware of Mainland China's Fearsome Public Diplomacy

An interesting article published by John Brown. Does this confirm my suspicions about the value of culture - and especially film - as instruments of soft power and public diplomacy? Clearly box office receipts are no indicator of impact. It will be interesting to follow this story and see how the Chinese respond/react.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The last 65 feet ...

Scholars of public diplomacy are used to hearing about the importance of the 'last three feet' of human contact. When a woman jumped into a lake in Hangzhou (China) and started to panic, an American woman took off her coat, swam the 65 feet and brought her back to the shore. Seeing the woman was safe, the American left without giving her name.

One Chinese commentator microblogged: 'Today I see a story about an American tourist jumping into the water to save someone. I finally realized why America is such a strong country and will continue to be one.'

Deeds will always triumph over words ...

Monday, 10 October 2011

"Capitalizing on Taiwan's cultural Soft Power"

An article has been published in Taiwan Today ( suggesting yet again that the cultural industries are at the heart of Taiwan's soft power. Following my interviews during the summer with government agencies involved in Taiwan's internationl outreach, I came to the conclusion that (a) Taiwan is placing too much faith in culture; (b) the government agencies responsible really do not know what they are doing or why they are doing it. I am heartened that, according to the article, the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) recognises that "Taiwan's advantage is its freedom and democracy," but the Council, like the Government Informational Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, chooses to ignore the narrative of Taiwan's democratisation in international outreach programmes, preferring instead to claim that Taiwan is the preserver of traditional Chinese culture. As I have said time and again - in these blogs and to the government agencies themselves - this is the wrong strategy.

What is clear from the article published in Taiwan Today is that there is a complete ignorance of what soft power really is and how it might be exercised. Government officials I spoke to were unable to answer three key questions: (1) For what purpose is Taiwan engaging in soft power? (ii) To which audiences? (iii) How doe you know if it is having any impact? The final question is the main problem with over-dependence on culture as a soft power strategy as I have made clear in previous postings. This is summarised in the quotation from the GIO: "Taiwan's pop music is a culturally and commercially valuable type of soft power ..." Why and to what benefit in soft power terms?

I identify three further problems in the article. The first is the suggestion that Taiwan should copy South Korea's strategy and therefore success. Certainly Taiwan could look abroad to its neighbours for inspiration, but it already stands accused of copying the PRC (remember the five mascots for the Taipei Floral Expo which were clear copies of the five mascots for the Beijing Olympics?). South Korea is not a model because it is a different country operating within a different set of social, political and cultural contexts. Taiwan needs to have the confidence to "stand up" (ironic words to use on the 100th Anniversary of the ROC) and be itself.

The second problem is in the concluding sentence of the article which is a quotation from a CCA official: "If we let up, other nations will catch up, and we'll lose our chance." Soft power is not constrained by time pressures; it works best as part of a long-term strategy, and its practitioners must realise that it can take years to build trust, credibility and appeal. Any attempt to design a short-term strategy that will have immediate effect is doomed to failure. Moreover, it is not a competition. By fearing that other nations will 'catch up', this quotation reveals the lack of confidence in Taiwan's soft power as a method of natural attraction.

Finally, I am genuinely peturbed that the photo used to accompany the article depicts the GIO Minister showing the government's support for an epic film released this year, "Seediq Bale". Since Seediq Bale, when it was released in Taiwan, did not have English subtitles, it is difficult to understand what soft power the government expects it to have. I know many expatriates living in Taiwan who wanted to see this landmark contribution to Taiwan's creative industries - a stirring story of Taiwan's  history - but could not watch it due to the absence of subtitles. A soft power opportunity missed?   

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Despatches from Taiwan 4: The Taiwan Academies

My final blog from Taiwan in 2011. Today, my article about the Taiwan Academies appeared in the Taipei Times newspaper (

As a close observer of Taiwan’s public diplomacy for almost twenty years, I recognise the government’s intentions in this area and respect them. Taiwan is in a very difficult international situation and must struggle to be heard by a world that on the whole chooses to avoid listening to it. In such an environment, public diplomacy must remain an instrument of Taiwan’s foreign policy. In the absence of hard power – diplomatic recognition, international legitimacy and membership of the most important international organisations – and with a contested sovereignty that involves a bigger and more powerful neighbour, Taiwan will only survive and prosper by devoting more attention and resources to the study and application of ‘soft power.’  
                However, my research has revealed a fundamental flaw within Taiwan’s current public diplomacy strategy, and this is the over-dependence on culture (and traditional Chinese culture) as the dominant theme in international communications and engagement. Following this is the proposal that Taiwan should create the Taiwan Academies to help project this culture, teach traditional Chinese characters and history, and hence generate interest in the island. This, however, is a false logic. I suggest that the Taiwan Academies will not add any value or benefit to current endeavours, and will certainly not alleviate the many serious problems facing Taiwan in the international arena.
The first reason is this proposal demonstrates how Taiwan is trying to run before it can walk. Despite all the excellent work of the Government Information Office (which needs reorganising, not abolishing), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Council of Cultural Affairs, and the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, I am sad to say that few members of the public across the world either know or care about Taiwan. Many would have great difficulty locating Taiwan on a map. Why does the government think that the Taiwan Academies will make any difference? If no-one knows where Taiwan is, why would they seek out and engage with the Academies? Before Taiwan begins to think about creating anything resembling the Academies, it is essential to first make sure the world is aware of Taiwan and starts to know its story.
                The second reason the Taiwan Academies are a bad idea is the most important: They will be in direct competition with the PRC’s Confucius Institutes. The government and the civil service may assure me that this is not the case, and I concede that this it is not Taiwan’s intention to engage in such competition. However, in the realm of public diplomacy, sometimes the intention is less significant than the message, and it is certainly less important than the perception of actions among global audiences.  For the international community the Taiwan Academies are a direct competitor with the Confucius Institutes, and whatever the government says to the contrary will not make the slightest difference. This perception will make competition the story, and Taiwan’s good intentions will be ignored. Once again, Taiwan will be seen as lacking innovation and will be accused of simply riding the coat-tails of the PRC. (Why did the Taipei Floral Expo use almost exactly the same five mascots as the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Did no-one spot the similarity and consider how this would project a negative image of Taiwan?)
                The Taiwan Academies are a symptom of a larger and more serious problem in Taiwan’s public diplomacy that has revealed itself during my 2011 research. Taiwan is currently telling the wrong story to the world. By emphasising culture as the priority in the public diplomacy strategy – Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture – Taiwan is missing the opportunity to define itself and tell a more exciting and relevant story that would generate international interest. Taiwan is the first Chinese democracy. It has experienced one of the smoothest and most successful political transitions in Asia and is today a vibrant challenge to the crazy idea that democracy is somehow inimical to Asian or Chinese culture (the nonsense of the so-called ‘Asian Values’ theory). Remember that whatever happens or does not happen in the PRC – whether China marches forward to democracy or retrenches under internal pressures and fervent nationalism – Taiwan will always be the first Chinese democracy. How this happened is a fascinating and often moving story, but where is it being told? Who is telling it? It may come as a surprise to learn that few people across the world are interested in the history and calligraphy of traditional Chinese characters (and how many visitors to the exhibitions being organised around the world know the difference between traditional and simplified characters?). Culture must be part of a more holistic strategy; it has an important and strategic role to play and certainly helps to define Taiwan. However, it is not the whole story and should not be the entire focus of Taiwan’s public diplomacy strategy. In the struggle to define Taiwan, in the noble efforts to identify what is unique and different about this island, the current strategy is deliberately ignoring the one narrative that makes Taiwan stand out and differentiate it from the PRC. To repeat, Taiwan is the First Chinese Democracy.
                Moreover, Taiwan is not ‘the heart of Asia’ despite claims in the new advertising campaign. Every country in Asia claims it is the true heart of the continent (think ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’). ‘Touch your Heart’ was a far more successful brand. It suggests warmth, friendship, intimacy, the promise of a genuinely touching experience. ‘The heart of Asia’ tells us nothing, promises nothing. Taiwan no longer stands out from the crowd. Moreover, by changing the brand, Taiwan has destroyed the brand-familiarity among the audience, the result no doubt of many years and a considerable amount of finance.
                Taiwan has many opportunities to improve its public diplomacy, to persuade the world that this is a vibrant, modern, democratic society. Taiwan has an envious amount of “soft power” capital at its disposal because of its recent history (not because of ancient Chinese history – the PRC has that market cornered and Taiwan cannot compete). This involves telling a political and social, rather than a cultural story. By creating the Academies, Taiwan is suggesting that it knows nothing about itself – what makes this island a unique and fascinating place. Moreover, it reveals that Taiwan neither knows nor cares about its target audience (a fatal error), preferring instead to believe that your audience will accept whatever you give them. Above all, Taiwan is creating a narrative which suggests Taiwan is (at best) competing with and (at worst) copying the PRC and its Confucian Institutes. It is not too late to face the facts: the Taiwan Academies are a bad idea, and it would be in Taiwan’s long term interest to abandon their creation immediately.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Despatches from Taiwan 3

I recently visited the Chiang Ching-kuo memorial in Daxi, in Taoyuan county. An exhibition of the former President's role in "counter-insurgency" against the "rebel" regime on the Chinese mainland reminded me of my visit in 2010 to Jinmen. Jinmen is an island that belongs to Taiwan but is actually  geographically closer to the PRC. It was the site of fierce battles in the 1950s when thousands of Chinese from both sides of the Taiwan Strait lost their lives. It then became the centre of Taiwan's propaganda efforts towards the mainland, being the home of several large signs painted on the cliffs shouting political slogans at the mainland, and huge speakers from which similar propaganda messages were blast across the water. From Jinmen, Taiwan shelled the PRC and the Communist forces shelled Taiwan in turn. In later years, the shells contained nothing more harmful than propaganda leaflets, and the militaries on opposing sides reached a strange consensus that they would timetable their shelling on alternate days of the week. Propaganda by a gentleman's agreement.

Most interesting for this 'shortwave radio nut' during his visit to Jinmen was the Ma Shan broadcasting station. Although I could not enter, exhibitions in Jinmen and at the Chiang Ching-kuo mausoleum recounted the role that broadcasting has played in the propaganda war between Taiwan and China.  

Taiwan's propagandists take great pride in their confidence that broadcasts found a significant audience within the PRC despite severe punishment if they were caught listening. They claim that listeners wrote to Taiwan's main radio station, the Central Broadcasting Station (CBS), using "hidden messages". This 'refers to the use of a special ink needed for conveying what listeners actually had in mind on paper'. What this special ink was, how it worked and, most importantly, how the Chinese audience obtained it, needs further investigation. What is most interesting about the exhibition is that it admits CBS was involved in 'psychological warfare'; its main audience were Chinese pilots, and CBS broadcast programmes designed to encourage Chinese pilots to defect. While programmes such as 'Three Family Village Nighttime Talk' may have had some impact, more significant perhaps were the financial rewards the pilots were told by the broadcasts they would receive after their defection.

However, the most successful element of this psychological warfare was a singer, Deng Lijun (Teresa Deng). Extremely popular in Taiwan and Japan in the 1970s, Teresa Deng regularly broadcast to the PRC from the Ma Shan broadcasting station on Jinmen in the 1980s. Although her music was considered 'decadent' and 'bourgois' and was banned in China, her broadcasts found a huge audience. This was confirmed when a Chinese airforce pilot defected, claiming that he wanted to meet the singer - which of course found its way back into the propaganda, confirming how propaganda often feeds on itself. It also confirms that the best propaganda is often based on entertainment that has no political content whatsoever; recall the popularity, and therefore importance in Eastern Europe of Willis Conover's apolitical Jazz Hour broadcast by VoA during the Cold War. Teresa Deng's rendition of ballads and Chinese folk songs encouraged a sense of nostalgia among listeners and perhaps reminded the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan strait of what united, rather than separated them.

It was often said that Big Deng (Deng Xiaoping) ruled China during the day, but Little Deng (Teresa Deng) ruled China at night when he broadcasts could be heard. It is with a hint of irony that the Communist Party of China invited her to perform on the mainland in the 1990s, but she never had the opportunity.

In 1995, Teresa Deng died from asthma tragically young at the age of 42. In 2010 I visted her  mountainside tomb in Jinshan in northern Taiwan. The site features a statue of Teresa and a large electronic piano keyboard set in the ground that can be played by visitors who step on the keys. Her music broadcasts continiously. It is Taiwan's Graceland.

I have become extremely interested in Teresa Deng, and I sincerely hope to supervise a PhD about her work as a propagandist. I hope someone who is bilingual in English and Chinese and is thinking about doctoral research might read this and get in touch ...

I asked some well informed colleagues in Taiwan - I shall say no more - about claims I saw in Jinmen that balloons carrying propaganda from the island had floated deep (and I mean deep) into the PRC. I found these claims a little exaggerated; could the balloons float so far inland? After all, the balloons that were used to carry propaganda over the iron curtain or from South to North Korea (which is still happening) had little distance to travel. The PRC, as we know, is huge. My 'friends in the know' tried to convince me that (a) the distance travelled depends on the type of balloon; and (b) they know they did travel so far inland because they were recovered by pro-Taiwan resistance fighters in the mainland. I am still very sceptical and look forward to investigating further.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Two excellent books

I want to take this opportunity to recommend two books that I have read so far during my time in Taiwan. They are both excellent discussions that combine empirical and theoretical insights into public diplomacy and soft power, and they make a significant contribution to the de-westernization of both practices.

The books are:  Public Diplomacy and Soft Power in East Asia edited by Sook Jong Lee and Jan Melissen (2011). This collection is published in the Palgrave Macmillan Series in Global Public Diplomacy edited by Kathy Fitzpatrick and Phil Seib. Young Wook Lee's chapter on 'Soft Power as Productive Power' is a particularly useful and sophisticated re-examination of soft power, while Rizal Sukma's chapter on Indonesia should be essential reading for policy makers undertaking public diplomacy in this unique Muslim nation.

The second book I wish to recommend is Soft Power: China's Emerging Strategy in International Politics edited by Mingjiang Li (published in 2009 by Lexington; paperback 2011). The contributers have provoked me to rethink my understanding of Chinese soft power and have turned some of my ideas on their head. Again, it is is the thoretical richness of the book that is its most valuable contribution.   

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Yao Ming and Soft Power

Watching the news on BBC World and CNN, and Yao Ming has just announced his retirement from professional basketball. In case you do not know, Yao Ming is one of China's biggest exports, having played with the Houston Rockets for a decade.

Inevitably, the report claimed that Yao Ming is China's biggest soft power asset, which made me wonder: perhaps the question is no longer what IS soft power, but what ISN'T. The term is fast becoming meaningless because everything is being described as soft power. I have my doubts about the 'soft power' of Yao Ming. Has he made the American public more interested in or sympathetic towards China? Or is he regarded as just a very good Chinese basketball player? Unless we can demonstrate that there is a clear correlation between Yao Ming and a softening in American public opinion towards China, can we really conclude that he exercised soft power? CNN described him as a 'brand', but selling coca-cola does not mean he excercises soft power; he sells a product. I also think it is time for academics, politicians and the media to be more careful in their use of the term. It is not a handy catch-all phrase, but the more it is used in a casual and indiscriminate way, the less value it has as a concept. We misuse it at our peril.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Despatches from Taiwan (2)

A few days ago I was asked by a reporter based in Taiwan to comment on a new law which requires any caught sharks entering port to have their fins attached. Taiwan is the first country in Asia to enact such a law. The reporter asked me about the public diplomacy and soft power impact of this. Here is my reply:

This is a very interesting subject and several months ago, Taiwan was featured in a TV programme in the UK about shark fishing,so it has featured on the media agenda. Normally attention on this topic focuses on China and Japan; the fact that Taiwan was featured (named as shamed, as we say in the UK) is quite significant.

It is quite possible that the Ma Ying-jeou administration was thinking about soft power in pasing this law. The question is: will it make a difference? The problem is not only the severing of fins outside the port, but the idea of eating an endangered species at all. I am sure this law will have positive consequences, but it will have to be seen and sold as only the first step.

Hence any consequences that this law will have in soft power terms depends on the public diplomacy process that is implemented to publicise it. In other words, there is no point passing a law for international opinion if international opinion never hears about it. It is essential that Taiwan's diplomats, government spokesmen and NGOs in Taiwan and around the world make sure that this law is known and reported by the most important media. It is ok to have the message, and this is the most important thing (policy must always precede presentation); now it is extremely important to concentrate on selling the message. It may help Taiwan's image - each journey must begin with one small step - but it may also raise expectations of further legislation. As I said at the beginning, will the next step be the banning of shark fishing altogether? This would have a very dramatic soft power impact.

The US connecting in Thailand

The personification of 'new' and interactive public diplomacy is Kristie Kenney, the US ambassador to Thailand. A google search reveals her presence all over the new and old media: Twitter; Facebook; blogs; reported how she 'moonwalked' on television before she said goodbye to the Philippines, while on Youtube you can see her dance the 'Papaya' ( She has even been pictured in Thai newspapers in a parachute jump, while just three days after Thailand's recent election she featured on both the front of the English-language Nation newpaper (with the incoming premier, Yingluck Shinawatra) and the back page (with outgoing leader Abhisit Vejjajiva). The Ambassador has nearly 20,000 followers on Twitter which, she says, is a way for her to connect with people 'and it allows people to feel that they can reach out to the ambassador who is not just a figure hidden in a big building.' She is anxious to make clear that herTwitter feed is purely personal and has nothing to do with the State Department, but arriving in Thailand only months after Wikileaks revealed her predecessor had made unflattering comments about the Thai monarchy, it is not difficult to assume that her outreach has greater strategic value.  Tulsathit Taptim, a columnist Nation newspaper described Kenney as 'undiplomatically pleasant and gracious.' Perhaps the social networking is the future of public diplomacy and will allow more diplomats to be 'undiplomatically pleasant and gracious.' 

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Despatches from Taiwan (I)

I have been in Taiwan for less than 48 hours and already several notable stories related to public diplomacy have caught my attention.
I will gloss over the local mania for Lady Gaga as she plays sell-out concerts in Taiwan. Singing two more songs here than she did in Singapore obviously means she loves Taiwan; while TV news stations spend precious time (20 minutes in one case) detailing every detail of her life, career and stay on the island so far. Is this an example of American soft power in action?
I will likewise mention only in passing the new-found affection for Tom Hanks after he told a press conference for his new film that Los Angeles should be more like Taipei. Apparently, Mr Hanks believes that Taiwanese all ride scooters with the wind blowing in their hair. That Mr Hanks has never been to Taipei is obvious; the only thing blowing in your hair in Taipei is the pollution from all the other scooters around you. Yet naturally the media here seized on Mr Hanks’s words, as any global attention is important for a small unrecognised island competing to be heard.
Morever, I am sure that the publication of a photograph showing three students at the Ministry of Defence’s Armor Training Command and Armor School wearing Nazi Waffen-SS uniforms will not damage Taiwan’s relations with Israel. The Ministry apologised to Israel’s Representative to Taiwan who conceded that ‘it was a mistake of ignorance and not intention.’ The Representative promised to work with the relevant educational institutions in Taiwan to develop educational programmes on the Holocaust. This was an embarrassing episode for Taiwan, but not as serious as it might have been.   
Two more important stories have potential public diplomacy interest. The first is a rather frivolous story about the local reaction to a US food blogger in Texas who recalled on CNN’s iReport his bad experience with a Taiwanese delicacy, century eggs or pi dian. Legislators in Taiwan called Americans ‘chicken-hearted’ and said Westerners ‘should be more courageous and willing to try new things’. Overlooking the fact that this is exactly what the blogger had done – and found he did not like what he had eaten – the Government Information Office Minister Philip Yang said the article had ‘damaged’ the nation’s image. However, it is possible to argue that in criticising the blogger’s right to have an opinion about the food he has eaten, his detractors have damaged Taiwan’s image themselves. In writing about Chinese soft power I often discuss China’s inability to accept foreign criticism and suggest that this is a serious hindrance to that country’s soft power capacity: a serious global player must expect and accept criticism from time to time. By over-reacting in this way to a misinterpreted blog, the Taiwanese are falling into the same trap as their neighbours on the other side of the Strait. My friend Paul Rockower whom I first met in Taipei last year blogs often about Taiwan’s ‘gastrodiplomacy’ (there is a link to him from this site). I look forward to reading what he makes of this episode.
The second story that caught my attention concerns the failure of Taiwan’s institutions of higher education to recruit students from the PRC. The Ministry of Education had approved the recruitment of 2,141 Chinese students, equal to about 1 percent of Taiwanese students in the university system per year. In fact, only 1,263 were accepted and a mere 975 will actually enrol. One reason for this is the ‘three limits, six noes’ policy that the opposition DPP insisted should regulate the flow of students. The ‘three limits’ refer to caps on the numbers of students, the number of Chinese universities recognised as eligible for the scheme, and limits on the types of Chinese diplomas that can be accredited.
More damaging are the ‘six noes’, banning Chinese students from receiving scholarships or professional licenses, from remaining or working Taiwan after their graduation, from receiving extra points on exams, and from taking civil service examinations. In addition, most of the universities in Taiwan able to recruit from China are outside Taipei, and include institutions on the islands of Quemoy and Penghu. Why would a student from China wish to live and study in Quemoy, a beautiful but sleepy island and which was at the epicentre of hostilities between Taiwan and China in the 1950s?
In other words, apart from receiving a degree from a university that may be far away from Taiwan’s vibrant capital city – or perhaps on another island altogether – there is little incentive for Chinese students to study here. If soft power is about persuasion through attraction, shouldn’t Taiwan be doing more to encourage students from across the Strait to study, and perhaps live, work and contribute to Taiwan’s economy after graduation? In the past, students from beyond the Iron Curtain defected; now they acquire visas.        
Given the importance and success of the student experience in facilitating public diplomacy – a PhD student at ICS, Molly Sisson, is researching this very area (again there is a link to her blog here) – it seems incredible that Taiwan would impose such restrictions. This is Taiwan’s opportunity to showcase itself to China’s potential future political, social, intellectual and economic elites. Beijing has taken an enormous risk in allowing its students to travel abroad in such huge numbers, and an even greater risk in allowing them to travel to Taiwan – democratic and ‘Free China’ - for their education.
It is possible that most Chinese students wish to attend universities in the UK, US or Australian universities; perhaps the higher tuition fees and cost of living in Taiwan compared with China is a prohibition on the island’s attraction as a destination for students from the PRC. Nevertheless, it does seem that by imposing such a strict policy as the ‘three limits, six noes,’ Taiwan’s potential public diplomacy with Chinese across the Strait is taking an unnecessary beating.    

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Subversive creativity in China

I am currently reading a fascinating book edited by David Bandurski and Martin Hala called Investigative Journalists in China: Eight Cases in Watchdog Journalism (HK University Press, 2010). Most of the literature on Chinese media and communications emphasies the hierarchical nature of journalism, with most writers focusing on issues of control and censorship.
Bandurski and Hala's book is a refreshing and timely reminder that many Chinese journalists challenge state authority to investigate and expose corruption and official misconduct, often at considerable personal risk.

I started to read Investigative Journalists in China in the same week I discovered just how creative Chinese can be in their subversion. The examples below will not cause a revolution and facilitate the fall of the Chinese Communist Party; but they do reveal that the media - and especially the so-called 'new media' are being used in innovative ways to challenge political and social hegemony:


Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Accidental Public Diplomat and the BBC World Service

In the UK we measure age by three things: which Blue Peter presenters we remember; which was 'our' Dr Who; and with whom we awoke on the BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show. Growing up in the 1970s, I listened first to Noel Edmonds, before Dave Lee-Travis took the helm (and I think this was the last time I listened to Radio 1).

Yesterday 'The Hairy Cornflake' as he was affectionately known at Radio 1 emerged as the latest Accidental Public Diplomat when the Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi said that Lee-Travis's show on the BBC World Service had made her 'world much more complete'. She said: 'I would listen to that quite happily because the listeners would write in and I had a chance to hear other people's words.' The democracy leader then noted that the World Service had enabled her to keep 'in touch with everything ... with culture, with art, with books, with music.'

This news was released on the day that the BBC Trust welcomed the British Foreign Secretary's announcement that an additional £2.2 million per year would be provided to the World Service over the next three years. This means Hindi, Somali and Arabic language services (the Arabic service was the first foreign language service of the BBC Empire Service) will be saved from the axe.

This extra funding means the World Service is now facing a reduction of its annual budget by £42 million by the end of March 2014, rather than £46 million. This means five language services - Albanian, Russian, Portuguese for Africa, Serbian and English for the Carribean - will close. Radio broadcasts in Mandarin, Russian, Turkish and Vietnamese will cease, switching to other platforms.

I have talked about the folly of this in previous bogs and will not rehearse those arguments again here. What is most worrying is that from 1 April 2014, the BBC will take over from the Foreign Office funding the World Service using licence fee revenue. What this means is that the World Service, the most credible and trusted instrument of British public diplomacy, will have to compete with all the other BBC channels and platforms for funding. A programme in Korean or Strictly Come Dancing? The BBC World Service or BBC 3? How do you compare apples and pears?

Dave Lee-Travis was understandably pleased that his programme had made such an impact: 'I think it's rather nice,' he said, 'and it came as a pleasant surprise to me, that a leader of a country in the world, especially one that's been very repressed, listened to my programme, to get a bit of jollity in her life.'    

Monday, 6 June 2011

Xinhua calls for 'Media UN'

Below is a story from the Wall Street Journal (1 June 2011). It is by Li Congjun, the President of China's Xinhua news agency, and is thirty years out of date. We all know what happened to MacBride, published in 1980; moreover, attempts to regulate international media and communications have never been very successful. Remember the struggle between the right to freedom of speech and the right to protect one's own internal affairs and sovereignty, both enshrined in international regimes at the end of WWII and both used at regular intervals by all powers during the Cold War to justify or rail against international propaganda. 

Li suggests in this article four principles which could provide the foundation for a new regime, but he fails to tell us how these might be practiced or enforced. Moreover, if the principles did contribute to the structure of a new international regime about information, Xinhua would be the first to feel its heavy hand (read the four principles and then remember this is the President of Xinhua - a news agency in an authoritarian political system - suggesting them). 

Finally is the idea of cultural imperialism relevant anymore in an international system where culture and information do not flow north-south, or west-east, but are multi-directional and allow for a number of greater regional voices that challenge a supposed 'western hegemony' (Al-jazeera is the most stunning example)?

One must ask: why Xinhua and why now? Could it be that China's international media (and Xinhua's own television service) have finally realised that they are unable to compete with other broadcasting systems? Do they believe that it is far easier to blame outsiders (after all, the western media ARE biased against China, right?) than to address shortcomings in their own organisations, content and formats?



We need a mechanism to coordinate the global communications industry, something like a 'media U.N.'


The world established a new international order after World War II with the founding of the United Nations. For over six decades, the international community has endeavored to create a more balanced, just and rational political and economic order.
Unfortunately the rules governing the international media order lag behind the times, especially compared to changes in politics and economics. The gap is seen, first and foremost, in the extremely uneven pattern of international communication. The flow of information is basically one-way: from West to East, North to South, and from developed to developing countries.
In 1980, the 21st General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) addressed the imbalance and inequality in international news reporting and called for a new order in international mass communication. Over the years, a growing number of insightful people, including many from the West, have proposed changes with the conviction that the existing order is far from just, rational and balanced.
In our interdependent world, the human community needs a set of more civilized rules to govern international mass communication. This reminds me of bridge, a game I truly enjoy. Modern bridge is known as contract bridge, indicating that players are bound by a contract and the game is a bidding process, in which wise and effective exchanges of information rely on collaboration and communication carried out in a fair and just manner.
Earlier variations of bridge, known as bridge-whist or straight bridge, were different. In bridge-whist, there was no bidding and the game was all about gambling, making communication difficult. The modern game has been shaped by gradual rule changes over the years.
The "bridge" linking modern information flow and the international media is crumbling, in a sense, due to a lack of fair "contracting" and "gaming." This situation is incompatible with the contemporary world. An unjust and irrational order hinders the global media industry's sustainable development and contributes to the problems in today's world. We need to start a constructive reform through rule changes to rebuild the bridge of communication and let the media industry play a more active role in promoting the advancement of human civilization.
Four principles should guide changes in the value system:
• Fairness: This requires that media organizations from all countries should have the right to participate in international communication on equal terms. Those media organizations in turn should provide comprehensive, objective, fair, balanced and accurate coverage to minimize discrimination and prejudice.
• All-win: It is advisable to create conditions allowing media organizations from different countries to share the fruits of development in information and communication industries, to play an active role in international mass communication, and to reverse the unbalanced situation where the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker.
• Inclusion: To maintain the world's diversity, media must respect the unique cultures, customs, beliefs and values of different nations; strive to dispel suspicions and remove barriers between different cultures and civilizations; enhance dialogue and communication; and seek common ground while putting aside differences.
• Responsibility: Media organizations should not only ensure openness and transparency to promote the building of an open society, but also keep to rational and constructive rules so as to turn mass communication into an active force for promoting social progress.
We must also keep improving rules and explore new mechanisms governing international communication. Unesco should actively negotiate and settle issues within the U.N. framework. However, it is necessary to keep improving rules and, when the conditions are ripe, to explore a long-term, nongovernmental mechanism to coordinate the global media industry, something like a "media U.N." This can be a mechanism for global media exchanges and consultation, and it may evolve into an organization for coordination and maybe even arbitration.
A sports analogy may help explain what I mean. Ping-pong, or table tennis, played a unique role in restoring China-U.S. relations in the 1970s and is known as China's "national sport." For many years, Chinese ping-pong players have taken the top prize in almost all major international events. This presents a paradox: The stronger a team becomes, the more it desires to maintain its position and keep improving. However, when a team is invincible for too long, few others are inclined to compete.
In the long run, the sport in which China enjoys so much advantage will be less appealing, less viable, and may eventually be excluded from future Olympic Games. In fact, ping-pong has undergone a series of major rule changes over the past two decades. After the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the older 38mm balls were replaced by 40mm balls and the former 21-point scoring system was changed to an 11-point system. These changes, aimed at limiting the advantage of "super players," have made the sport more enticing to players from different countries.
The theories of "checking superpower" and "maintaining equilibrium" also apply to the media. It is time to reverse the marginalization of developing nations in the media, change their underdeveloped status, and enhance their rights of expression in the international media market. To that end, a mechanism for international cooperation, exchange and coordination is needed, as well as an increase in funds and technical support for media from developing countries.
Almost five decades after the discovery of the double helix, James Watson said in his book, "DNA: The Secret of Life," that the Human Genome Project found that human beings are similar in genetic makeup. Our common ground is far wider than any potential gulf that threatens to separate us.
Information flow, like gene transcription and expression, plays a vital role in the evolution of civilization. Resetting rules and order in the international media industry is an adaptation to the trend of democratization of international relations. With diversified expression and information flow, we can mend the broken bridge of cross-cultural communication and build an information link to the future.
Mr. Li is president of China's Xinhua News Agency.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

"Foreign Office criticised for axing terror cartoon"

This is an incredible story, and I can see my old friend Phil Taylor having a good old chuckle over this. An independent media company has developed, with funding from the Foreign Office, a six minute animated film called Wish You Waziristan. It is about two Muslim brothers who travel from London to the terrorist training camps in Pakistan. The problem is that the launch of the film has been staggered by its creators uploading parts of the film on Youtube. Once a newspaper got hold of the story, the FCO pulled the plug. This means viewers did not get to see the payoff - that the principal character, attracted to the terrorist's life - becomes disillusioned. It is now possible to view the clips as terrorist propaganda, especially as each clip ends with the message 'Join us here'.

And then they wonder why they are losing the information war ....

A useful description of the film and Muslim reaction can be found here

The second report hints (in a typical Mail way) that perhaps money would be better spent on understanding fighting the reasons why young Muslims are radicalised. This is, after all, where the information war will be lost or won.

I would also add that before designing such a campaign, it is important to seek advice from members of the target audience. The reaction from young Muslims and those representing Muslims in the UK is that the style and themes of this film will make no difference.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Voice of America: Silenced in China

This is a fascinating and very perceptive panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation of the consequences of silencing the Voice of America in China. I don't think I can add anything to the comments, only to say that depending on so-called 'new media' in a country like China - a huge country in both geographic and demographic terms - is a big mistake. At a time when China's political, geostrategic and economic power is expanding, and when Beijing is investing resources into public diplomacy and soft power that would shame other major powers, it is necessary to use all means necessary to engage with the people there. VoA does have an audience in China. By focusing only on the internet, Washington puts at risk the availability of alternative information for millions of Chinese. This is especially worrying at a time when the Communist Party's grip on the media and communications - especially the internet - is becoming tighter. Dependence on one platform that is so easy to censor and excludes a large section of the potential audience is not a recipe for effective public diplomacy. Shortwave signals are not that easily controlled; and radio remains the ultimate 'democratic medium' because it is inexpensive and does not require a level of technical competence or education. It remains the medium of choice in many parts of the developing world, including parts of China.

This panel discussion is highly recommended.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Confucius Institutes #1

I have called this Confucius Institutes #1 because I am sure there will be much, much more to say here given the attention these Insitutes are receiving. I have yet to be convinced of the CIs, either in terms of source (their close relationship with the Chinese government makes throws some doubt on their credibility) or in terms of audience (is there any evidence of their success? Are they having any influence beyond the developing world?). I think it is still too early for me to make any sound conclusions on this but will continue to try to discover more. Every year at least one of my MA students writes a dissertation about the CIs, which gives me an opportunity to learn more about them.

But I have just come across this story on Xinhua's website 'Senior CPC official urges Confucius Institute to contribute to China-Armenia friendship' ( What you may not know when you read this article is that not only is Li a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, he is also the Party's propaganda chief .... 

China's Foreign Aid

In April 2011, the Information Office of the State Council issued a White Paper on China's foreign aid. The full text should be available at but the link was broken last time I tried to access it. It is easier to go to - click on English and then search for it. The document is still on the site.

The document makes interesting reading. We are all aware that foreign aid is an instrument of public diplomacy, and can represent genuine activity among an audience rather than just speaking and hoping for a reaction. From that perspective, this is an important White Paper that gives us a greater insight than ever before into China's foreign aid programme. Also, the PRC has not always been forthcoming in releasing information about its foreign aid, so this White Paper is very welcome (though phrases such as 'Since 2000 aid has increased, averaging 29.4% from 2004-2009' are unclear and don't tell us very much). 

It is also interesting for what is missing. Where is Taiwan here? The White Paper is very guarded, but a close reading of the Appendices reveals a clear political agenda: various promises to African countries include the rejoinder 'having diplomatic relations with China'. So much for unconditional loans and aid.  

I also like the rhetoric used in the document. This passage is an example of how public diplomacy and propaganda are still blurred in China: 'China started foreign aid by providing goods and materials. In the 1950s and 1960s, China was short of goods and materials at home. But to help Asian and African countries win national independence and develop their economies, it provided these countries with a large amount of goods and materials'. Note the language of self-sacrifice here.

Finally, the White Paper's boasts about environmental aid, but are these claims credible given China's own environmental problems, and China's behaviour in climate change discussions and conferences?

All in all, a very interesting document that is worth reading in detail.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Passport to Peking: Book Recommendation

I am currently reading Patrick Wright's Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao's China (OUP, 2010).
It is an extremely interesting, entertaining and highly readable account of the British delegations who ventured beyond the Bamboo Curtain in the 1950s.

It is relevant for those of us interested in Chinese public diplomacy as it offers a corrective to the idea that Chinese pd only really began in the early 1970s with Ping-Pong diplomacy and Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing. Wright offers us an insight into the British perceptions of China at this time (coming just after the Korean War and Britain's recognition of the PRC), as well as providing a lot of information about personal and cultural diplomacy from a new perspective. Highly recommended.      

China's Soft Power in the Information Age

Shanthi Kalathil at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown has just issed a new paper about Chinese soft power. Thanks to my colleague, Robin Brown, for drawing it to my attention. It is available at:

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Chinese Government’s Formulation of National Security Narratives in Media and Public Diplomacy

In March 2011 I was invited to submit a written testimony to a public hearing organised by the US-Chian Economic and Security Commission, a Congressional advisory body in Washington DC. The subject of the hearing was China's Narratives Regarding National Security Policy. This is the testimony I submitted.

Propaganda to foreign audiences: Public Diplomacy and Soft Power

The reasons why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to practice propaganda have changed in the last thirty years, as have its objectives and the methods of its delivery. No longer are communications and persuasion occupied by revolutionary ambitions to convince the masses (at home or overseas) of the correctness of the Communist Party’s direction, or by the goals of social and ideological transformation; now the propaganda is structured around three inter-connected pillars of economic development, maintaining the authority and legitimacy of the Communist party following the doctrinal demise of Communism (and avoiding a Soviet-style collapse), and consolidating the national unity of the Chinese people. This adjustment was signalled in an internal speech by a Party leader of Suixi County government in 2007 who connected economic development to the tasks of ‘external propaganda’ (duiwai xuanchuan): ‘The current mission of the external propaganda is to effectively promote each region, each sector to the outside world, in order to attract outside investors’ attention and build up outside investors’ confidence. We can safely say that the purpose of doing external propaganda work is to attract outside investment and undertake commercial projects.’

There is no doubt that China is successfully exporting the economic imperatives behind its remarkable growth. By 2006 China had become the world’s second largest economy after the United States with an average growth rate of 9 percent. However, China has difficulty in selling its political values except to governments in need of, or experienced in, undemocratic politics. The so-called ‘China model’ connecting an attainable economic paradigm with a set of specific cultural and political values – authoritarian state-led management, “Asian Values”, etc. – has proven attractive to many developing nation-states around the world (even Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, has referred to the ‘great Chinese fatherland’). By contrast the liberal-democratic world is not yet convinced by the political dimension of the China model. As Huang and Ding (2006) have noted ‘A country’s economic clout reinforces its soft power if others are attracted to it for reasons beyond trade, market access or job opportunities’  (‘Dragon’s Belly: An analysis of China’s soft power’, East Asia Vol.24:4). So far, there is little evidence that political or ideological motivations trump the economic benefits of associating with China.

Moreover, China devotes considerable resources to foreign aid, also a valuable instrument of public diplomacy and propaganda. While the actual size of China’s foreign aid budget is unknown (the PRC government does not release information about its foreign aid programmes), estimates place the totals between 2003 and 2007 anywhere between $970 million and $27 billion depending on which definition of ‘aid’ one accepts.

We should not be surprised that China pursues a political agenda through its aid programme. In September 2005, while on a visit to New York, President Hu Jintao promised $10 billion in Chinese aid over the next three years to the poorest countries … with diplomatic ties to China, suggesting that countries which recognise Taiwan would reap substantial economic benefits if they switched their recognition to Beijing. Here there is a clear reason to be apprehensive of claims that Chinese public diplomacy is working. The motivation for small and/or developing nations to switch their allegiance from Taiwan to China has little to do with persuading them of the intricate political and legal arguments for doing so and almost everything to do with the promise of more financial rewards than Taiwan can offer. As Taiwan’s Free China Review noted in 1998, ‘in diplomacy, you can’t buy friends, you only rent them.’

It is clear that since 2004 the CCP has become increasingly sensitive to the way its propaganda work is viewed by the world outside China, as indicated by the re-branding in English (and in English only) of the Propaganda Department as the Publicity Department.2 This re-classification of activities is associated with the CCP’s development of new ways to engage in propaganda and censorship – in China as elsewhere it is impossible to separate the two – partly in response the momentum of events such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the outbreak of SARS in 2002, and partly because of the rapid and dramatic transformation of the communications landscape.

There can be little doubt that China has embraced the concepts of public diplomacy and soft power with an enthusiasm rarely seen in other parts of the world. In 2004, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade established a Division of Public Diplomacy within the Information Department. The Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs said that China needed to ‘catch up with the development of public diplomacy in some developed countries’. The PRC clearly recognised that if it wanted to participate fully in a globalised international environment, present as a serious commitment its ‘peaceful rise’ (a nice public diplomacy slogan), challenge what the Chinese consider the distortions in the western media reporting of China then it needed to get its own voice heard, and engage more with foreign publics. Chinese discourses on soft power privilege culture as a major resource in the international arena. So, Chinese soft power tends to emphasise China’s cultural traditions – language, literature, philosophy, medicine, cuisine, martial arts and cinema. In other words, there is a tendency to focus on the idea of Chinese civilisation, and especially its continuity (the Confucius Institutes, for example, which have met limited success where host organisations are suspicious of their method and motive) and the reassertion of Chinese superiority.
The problem is how to determine whether this cultural attraction translates into power and influence. The consumption of a cultural product does not necessarily mean the consumer will be attractive to the political values or ideals of the source. Governments and other actors within nation-states may be able to control the design, the message and transmission of soft power or public diplomacy, but they can exercise no comparable control over reception.

It is still too early to discuss the results of China’s soft power crusade; attitudes and opinions take time to develop, and so far it is not possible to identify a positive correlation between Chinese soft power and Chinese foreign policy objectives or achievements. Also this is confusing the principle of soft power with the instruments of soft power.
In his book Soft Power (2004: 31-2) Joseph Nye argued that ‘The countries that are likely to be more attractive and gain soft power in the information age are those with multiple channels of communication that help to frame issues: whose dominant culture and ideas are closer to prevailing global norms (which now emphasize liberalism, pluralism and autonomy) and whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic values and policies.’

Leaving aside the problems in this quotation – what are ‘prevailing global norms’ and who decides? Why are liberalism, pluralism and autonomy necessarily ‘global norms’ - Snow (2009: 4) comments: ‘The US is at a comparative advantage with the first two and at a decisive disadvantage with the last dimension.’ This book will suggest that China is at a similar ‘decisive disadvantage’ in all three areas. Beijing has difficulty persuading the liberal-democratic world that China’s agenda is compatible, if not consistent, with the norms and values of democracies; China is only just developing the capacity to frame stories in the global news media, but this remains limited; and China’s domestic and international behaviour does not inspire confidence (though some progress has been made following Beijing’s decision to become a more responsible world power. Examples here include the PRC’s position and value in helping western powers in their relationship with North Korea; the so-called ‘Good neighbour policy’ in South East Asia; and China’s growing involvement in international organisations such as the UN. However, it only takes one episode to undo any good work; continued belligerence against Taiwan, policies in the Sudan, and crackdowns in Tibet and the international repercussions during the Olympic Torch Relay have tend to undermine almost in an instant any credibility and soft power capital the PRC has accumulated in other areas.

In the US after 911 it was common to hear Americans, including President George W. Bush, ask: ‘Why do they hate us?’ In public diplomacy terms, this immediately begs a second question in response: ‘Why don’t you ask them?’

The Chinese often ask a similar question, especially of the western media: Why do they criticise us so much? Zhao Qizheng, Director of the Foreign Affairs Committee and former director of the State Council Information Office, has often talked about the need for China to develop a soft power strategy in response to the alleged demonization by the western media and the constant chatter in some quarters about the so-called China threat. ‘This situation,’ said Zhao, ‘requires China to pro-actively establish a public diplomacy policy to improve the international image of China.’ While the idea of demonization is extremely problematic – in accepting the existence of a political conspiracy among the western media one is conveniently ignoring the differences in professional news values between Chinese and non-Chinese media and audiences – this statement is intriguing because it reveals high-level acknowledgement of the need for public diplomacy and a motive for doing so, however specious and reactive that motive may be.

However, first it is important to get the image right. If the question is ‘Why do they hate us?’ perhaps another satisfactory response might be: ‘Do they really know us?’ which is immediately followed by another crucial question: ‘Do we know ourselves?’ Public diplomacy must begin by understanding who ‘we’ are before we attempt to understand the audience with whom we wish to communicate.

We cannot deny that the Chinese think they know who they are: the PRC has a strong self-identity (even though it is often contradictory, hence William Callahan’s description of China as the Pessoptimist Nation (2009)); and this identity is increasingly based on power and self-confidence – the idea of Zhongguo and (inter)national recovery, rapid and widespread economic development, and increasingly (and perhaps disturbingly) a form of radical nationalism. While China’s enthusiastic embrace of soft power and public diplomacy is welcome as an alternative to the dependence on hard power, does China listen enough to a wide range of actors and institutions to understand why the international community is sometimes so critical of its actions and behaviour?

Nye has used the term ‘meta-soft power’ to describe ‘the state’s willingness to criticise itself. For Nye, such capacity for introspection fundamentally enhances a nation’s attractiveness, legitimacy and reliability’ (Watanabe & McConnell, 2008: xiii; see also Watanabe, 2006). Again, this is a useful criterion to measure China’s success (or lack of it) for the leadership in Beijing has not readily demonstrated any capacity for national self-criticism. The problem for China is that the west has been attracted to China, but engagement with the international community also exposes the PRC to criticism. I suggest that the reaction among the Chinese that greeted the pro-Tibet protests during the torch relay demonstrates that China is having great difficulty in coming to terms with the idea that international accountability is a natural consequence of international engagement. Television pictures of the aggressive behaviour of blue track-suited torch guards against pro-Tibet demonstrators in Paris, London and elsewhere merely drew attention to the issues that Chinese public diplomacy has tried to overcome, and reminded viewers of Tiananmen Square, the absence of human rights and the denial of free speech inside China; or at least the guards’ behaviour gave the western media the pretext to remind viewers about these issues. (It should also be noted that French, American and British public diplomacy – at home and abroad – was damaged by the governments and police of those countries allowing the Chinese torch guards to behave in such an aggressive manner. Only the Australian government clearly and openly prevented the Chinese police from acting in this way.) Moreover, the mobilisation by China’s embassies of Chinese communities, and especially students around the world to guard the torch and protest the media bias again brought to the surface worrying questions about unchecked nationalism.

It is not yet clear if China has the capacity to convert soft power and public diplomacy resources and effort into achievable foreign policy aspirations. China bestows upon its distinct approach to public diplomacy an extraordinary amount of hard and soft power – in selling Chinese language and culture; in humanitarian assistance; and in persuading its neighbours of China’s commitment to a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific.
China’s economic and commercial power is undeniable; and it makes China an attractive destination for global investment and entrepreneurship. However, convincing the liberal-democratic international community to look beyond trade and economics and to accept China as a credible diplomatic and political power is a considerable challenge for China’s public diplomacy. Cultural and economic diplomacy neither easily nor necessarily translate into foreign policy success.

The principal problems for public diplomacy are the contradictions in Chinese foreign policy. One the one hand, China yearns to be part of an interdependent world and to spread the benefits of political, economic and cultural engagement with China. On the other hand, Chinese political discourse is often characterised by a fierce nationalist rhetoric that is reinforced by the Communist Party’s determination to maintain authoritarian rule. Together with China’s unconditional friendship of ostracised regimes, and the use of the military threat against Taiwan and Tibet, this undermines the idea that Chinese soft power is all about selling national and cultural values.
Until they are unable to overcome such contradictions it is unlikely that Chinese public diplomacy will break out of its narrow success in a few friendly areas of the world where Beijing now operates.

China’s International Media
Global Times and CCTV 9

The Communist Party’s launch in 2009 of a new English-language newspaper, the Global Times (a tabloid attached to the Communist party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily), reveals that no matter much we observe and analyse the renaissance in China’s public diplomacy, we cannot but stand by and watch as China and its champions seem to misunderstand public diplomacy, what it is and how it is/should be practiced.

First, there is a misconception: Reporting the launch of the Global Times English edition, AP’s Christopher Bodeen wrote (20 April 2009) that this ‘reflects China’s recent “soft power” drive to build its global reputation, muffle foreign criticism and broadcast the leadership’s particular views on issues such as democracy, human rights and Tibet’. If “soft power” means the attempt to win hearts and minds by projecting culture and values (which is, I think, what Joseph Nye intended) then this is not the way to go about it. Instead China is engaged, at best, in public diplomacy, at worse in good old fashioned propaganda. The Global Times’s promise to present ‘news from a Chinese perspective, in a fair, insightful and courageous manner’ and then publish the usual accusations against the western media as being part of a large conspiracy against China does not auger well for the future of the newspaper in terms of attracting its intended audience. I have talked elsewhere, most recently in a chapter in Nancy Snow and Philip Taylor’s edited collection, The Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, that there is inconsistency between what China says and what China does. (China is not alone in this, of course; how else can we explain the failure of American soft power?) In other words, the message of the public diplomacy must be credible; and if there is one thing lacking in China’s English-language media it is credibility. China’s media are no longer the butt of jokes they once were – my favourite (and the favourite of most Chinese who know it) is ‘The only thing you can trust about the People’s Daily (the official party newspaper) is the date’ – yet credibility remains a serious problem when there is a serious inconsistency between policy and message, and when foreigners (and increasingly Chinese) have access to a range of non-Chinese media and sources of news.

The Global Times joins China Daily and the Shanghai Daily in trying to capture the English-language market. For those who watch TV rather than read newspapers, there is always CCTV 9, China’s English-language channel. These are all parts of China’s public diplomacy armoury, communicating China’s story and culture and to a world eager to hear the authentic voice of the nation, its people and its government ... at least that is what Beijing likes to believe.

Why does China always get it so wrong? The English-language media are rarely consumed by their intended international audience, but are rather used as tools by Chinese to improve their own English-language ability. Stories from the China Daily regularly crop-up in school and University English-language examinations. Few foreigners regularly watch CCTV 9 unless they have no other option (ie. they are not staying in five-star hotels where BBC World is available) or they wish to improve their own understanding of Chinese by watching programmes hosted by the Canadian Mark Rosewell (known in China as Da Shan – Big Mountain) teaching Mandarin. Moreover, even internet-savvy Chinese can leap over the Great Chinese Firewall and access foreign news websites; why bother with the China Daily or news on CCTV 9 (hosted now by non-Chinese in a bold move by CCTV to boost its public diplomacy credibility) for your daily news when you can read The Guardian online?
And yet the CCP and CCTV remain over-confident in these media’s public diplomacy potential, as brought home to me during a visit to Beijing in 2007 when I was lucky enough to be invited to tour CCTV. The obligatory bank of monitors displaying different television channels included one showing CNN, a station that ordinary Chinese are unable to access. CNN is a model and a template, if not an inspiration to these young Chinese media-types for how to package the news.

My guide was dismayed when I actually questioned the public diplomacy potential of CCTV 9. ‘CCTV 9 has an audience of 45 million all over the world,’ she declared proudly, repeating a mistake that can be found on the station’s website ( ‘No,’ I pointed out politely. ‘It has a potential audience of 45 million all over the world provided they subscribe to the satellite or cable package that subscribes to it.’ CCTV is now also available in French (CCTV-F) and Spanish (CCTV-E) increasing further the potential but not the actual audience.
The Global Times has a future; it will survive, like the China Daily and CCTV 9 for two reasons: these media are state owned, and therefore do not face competition. Their political agenda and support mean they do not have to do things differently, and no matter the size of the audience, they will continue to appear. The Communist Party cannot lose face by letting them disappear.

The second reason is the most disturbing – the Chinese genuinely believe they are effective tools of public diplomacy.
The Global Times is attracting attention for its sometimes critical coverage of some sensitive issues that are rarely reported in the official media. However, the reason Global Times is able to report such stories is precisely because it does so in English (the Chinese version continues to behave ad nauseum as a newspaper under state control) and because it enjoys the patronage of the People’s Daily. Journalists are not testing the boundaries of state censorship or creating new norms and routines of Chinese journalistic practice; they are following directives or clearance to report otherwise topics deemed sensitive for domestic consumption. Again, it raises the question, other than the illusion of media pluralism, what public diplomacy value is there in publishing the English-language Global Times and China Daily, both of which are connected to official organisations?

Xinhua’s China Network Corporation

On 1 July 2010 Xinhua, the news agency of the PRC launched a global 24-hour English-language television channel called China Network Corp (CNC). Trial broadcasts begin on 1 May. Announcing this development Xinhua’s president, Li Congjun said that ‘CNC will offer an alternative source of information for a global audience and aims to promote peace and development by interpreting the world in a global perspective.’ This sentence loses clarity in translation from the Chinese; not only is it confusing, but it is characteristic of the sentimental official rhetoric that Chinese officials use to mark landmark events (for further evidence, listen to the largely meaningless speeches delivered at the opening of Expo 2010 in Shanghai).

It is difficult to identify what China will gain by investing in yet another international television station: what will CNC do that CCTV9 is not already doing? Does the launch of CNC English reveal internal competition within the state system for control of China’s public diplomacy strategy? Perhaps it indicates that the Chinese have finally acknowledged CCTV9’s shortcomings and have decided it really is not up to the job. But will CNC fare any better?

The launch of this television station confirms that the leadership in Beijing is confident that it is possible to influence international public opinion and media coverage of China. The government has long criticised the way ‘Western’ media report China, accusing them of bias by focusing on human rights, Tibet and democracy, choosing to ignore differences in news values between Chinese and ‘western’ news organisations.

Li’s announcement came on the same day that the BBC World Service published its latest poll of 30,000 adults in 28 countries which reveals that views of China have declined sharply. In 2005, 49 percent of people surveyed thought that China’s influence was mostly positive (a striking 11 points higher than that of the United States). However, in the most recent survey China’s standing has dropped to just 34 percent, 6 points behind the US. The official Chinese media responded as expected, alleging that public opinion is shaped by western media organisations which ‘are unsuitably seasoned with misunderstanding, misinterpretation or even bias or enmity’.

China Daily is of course correct to state that the media can affect public opinion, but the downturn of opinion is not just in ‘western’ countries; the surveys reveal that several Asian countries are also responding more negatively to China than in the past. Besides, when China was ‘more popular’ than the US, the western media did not report news from China any differently. This suggests that Chinese policy – for example, the brutal Chinese handling of disturbances in Tibet and Xinjiang – may have helped to turned public opinion against China.

All in all CNC, CCTV9 and Chinese public diplomacy has a hard job ahead; and more information or channels of distribution does not necessarily mean better communication, especially when CNC and CCTV9 are embedded within the state system and are thus viewed with suspicion by international audiences. Just because you have a message and a means to deliver it, it does not mean anyone is listening. If few people outside China or outside Chinese-speaking communities (who wish to improve their English) are watching CCTV9, what makes Xinhua think they will turn to CNC instead? CCTV9 is accessible via satellite to some 85 million viewers in 100 countries; what proportion of the 85 million possible viewers are actual viewers? Rebranding CCTV9 as CCTV News is not going to offer much help in converting these potential audiences to regular viewers. Rebranding rarely succeeds without careful market research and, if necessary, modification of the product. Given that China’s international media are state owned and follow an agenda decided by the state, such a radical transformation of content is unlikely. So viewers will no doubt get more of the same under a different name.

At the end of the day the possible influence of China’s international media will be offset by the actions of its government at home and abroad, and issues of democracy, human rights, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan will continue to mar China’s public diplomacy for as long as Beijing continues to avoid resolving them sensitively and to the satisfaction of the people living in these areas.