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: