Tuesday, 10 January 2012

China's war against Harry Potter

Thanks to my colleague Robin Brown for drawing this excellent article to my attention.


I agree with Robin's comments on this piece (http://pdnetworks.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/hu-jintao-and-cultural-construction-in-china/#comment-491). Creativity has always been a problem for China, and there is a wonderful collection of essays addressing this issue - Culture in the Contemporary PRC, edited by Julia Strauss and Michel Hockx (CUP 2005). The contributors address the problems facing China's burgeoning creative industries and offer some interesting perspectives on why the Chinese tend to imitate rather than innovate. Hunan TV's Super Girl (or to give it its full title, Mongolian Cow Yoghurt Super Girl Competition) was a milestone; not only did it bring X-Factor-style reality TV to China, but it also depended on the audience participating and voting to save their favoured singer. It has since been pulled from the airwaves ...

I had some experience of this Chinese penchant for imitation when I lived in Ningbo. At a time when only four or five Harry Potter books had been published, hawkers were selling Harry Potter 7,8,9 and even 10. (The Harry Potter I saw at the cinema was censored - Harry's first kiss was deleted.) Moreover, I saw a Chinese version of Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire, but with contestants playing for prizes instead of cash. Instead of buying formats like other countries (so we have Indonesian Idol, Indian Idol, American Idol etc - all looking exactly the same), China takes the original concept and Sinifies it, something that we should not criticise (after all, this is what Mao did with Marxism-Leninism).

Robin and the author of the article, Stephen Walt, are correct; you can't legislate to make a population more creative. As Walt says: 'Government leaders don't create new and innovative art; it springs up from unfettered human beings, and often from fringe elements in society. And as Hu surely knows, some of the most creative artists are dissidents.' Certainly the most creativity in China is found on the internet and is subversive, satirising the party, its fiats and its way of working - see http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/06/chinese-bloggers-riff-off-worst-ever-doctored-propaganda-photo/241295/. Such creativity is inspired and inspiring, and is a serious challenge to all those inside and outside China who see only staid, controlled and censored media and communications platforms.

The problem is with a new directive that Chinese television should broadcast fewer 'vulgar' programmes and more news and programmes with virtuous moral content. But who decides which is which? And authoritarian regimes pull popular entertainment programmes from the schedules at their peril. One of the reasons the Romanian people turned against Nicolae Ceausescu at the end of the 1980s was because he pulled from the airwaves a popular British serial from the 1970s, The Onedin Line, and replaced it with North Korean-inspired propaganda. The Romanians turned to Hungarian TV via illegal satellite dishes for entertainment (Hungarian TV was far more liberal and even satirised the Hungarian regime and its Soviet masters). When Romanians saw on Hungarian TV the revolutions sweeping through Eastern Europe, well ....

The Chinese Communist Party needs to be careful. By removing popular entertainment programmes, the regime may actually be driving the people to seek out the kind of foreign programmes that Hu Jintao's new rant against 'cultural imperialism' opposes. Be careful what you wish for ...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Conference in memory of Professor Philip M. Taylor

Philip (Phil) Taylor was an intellectual powerhouse in International Communications. He was the first Chair of the subject in the UK, and helped to create the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds. I am proud to have been his PhD student (1991-94) and, since my return to Leeds in 2007, his colleague and friend. His histories of public and cultural diplomacy and propaganda are outstanding and remain the seminal works in the field today. His 1981 book, The Projection of Britain: British Overseas Publicity and Propaganda, 1919-1939, first published in 1981 and reissued in 2007, is by far his most enduring work. Based on careful archival research, The Projection of Britain is as relevant today as it ever was and should be read by every student of international communications, and should inspire every PhD student wanting to know how to research and write on historical subject matter. Phil later branched into more contemporary scholarship and was in constant demand by militaries around the world who sought his advice on communications and information strategy in the so-called 'war on terror'. His work, always informed by his all-round historical perspective, was devoted to demonstrating how communications can save lives, and he took each death of members of the US or UK psyops teams in Iraq and Afghanistan very personally.

I was honoured to organise a conference in his memory on 16th and 17th December 2011 in the University of Leeds to coincide with the first anniversary of his untimely passing. 'Organised' is used here loosely: in fact the organisation of the conference was really down to one of our star PhD students, Molly Sisson, who writes her own blog on her research on student exchanges and public diplomacy (http://americanstudentsinbritain.blogspot.com/). Many, many thanks to Molly for all her hard work on this conference.

So many of Phil's colleagues, collaborators and former students from all over the world gathered in Leeds to talk about their own research in three key areas - the history of propaganda, contemporary strategic communications, and war journalism - and to reflect on Phil's impact and legacy. The list of participants is too long for this blog, but I was delighted that journalist Paul Moorcraft, Davids Culbert and Ellwood, Nick Cull, Michael Nelson from Reuters, Stephen Badsey, Kate Utting, James Chapman, Jeffrey Richards and Piers Robinson all attended. Junior scholars, always very important to Phil, were represented by many of his former PhD students - Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, Cristina Archetti, Elina Bardach-Yalov, and of course Molly Sisson - and Edward Corse who has just completed his PhD thesis on the British Council between the wars, thus bringing us full circle to Phil's intellectual origins. The highlight of the conference was undoubtedly the talk delivered by the BBC's Kate Adie on her experiences as a war correspondent. Phil always told a story about how Kate had saved his life in Beirut, though we are sure the story got bigger and bigger every time he told it.

Dr Cristina Archetti and Paul Moorcraft

Kate Adie and Gary Rawnsley with some of the current MA students in ICS

Molly Sisson, Professor Nick Cull, Dr Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, Dr Elina Bardach-Yalov

Professors Gary Rawnsley, Nick Cull, David Culbert and David Ellwood

Professor Ed Spiers, Professor David Culbert, Dr Kate Utting, Professor Stephen Badsey

I should take this opportunity to thank Professor David Welch of the University of Kent at Canterbury for providing some much needed funding for the conference. David is editing a festschrift for Phil that will include many of the papers presented at the conference.

Phil helped to design the interior of the Institute's new home on the Leeds University campus. He was particularly proud of the cinema, and so it seemed appropriate to organise a ceremony at the conference to name this room The Philip M. Taylor Cinema. The plaque was unveiled by the Vice Chancellor of Leeds University, Professor Michael Arthur and Phil's widow, Sue Heward.

Professor Michael Arthur, Sue Heward, Professor Gary Rawnsley, and Judith Stamper (Acting Head of ICS) outside the Philip M. Taylor Cinema at the University of Leeds

We will all continue to miss Phil. He was such a commanding presence in many people's lives, but the work goes on. His website - a 'one stop shop' for resources relating to international communciations, propaganda and public diplomacy - is available at http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/index.cfm?outfit=pmt

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

From the BBC World Service's Facebook page

"The BBC World Service has been based at Bush House in central London since 1941. For over 70 years it has broadcast from this landmark building; through a World War, Cold War, decolonisation throughout Africa, the Iranian Revolution, Perestroika, Tiananmen Square, two Gulf Wars and into the new Millennium. But soon it's leaving Bush House, to join the rest of BBC News in one new building, adjoining a refurbished Broadcasting House."

This is very sad for me. I became interested in shortwave radio and therefore international communications through listening to the BBC World Service in the early morning on FM (after BBC Radio 4 closed down for the night). The strains of Lilliburlero at the top of the hour were a clear identifier, and I always associated it with accurate, interesting global news. Lilliburlero has gone and now the last remaining identifier - Bush House - is likewise set to disappear.

In the comments on the Facebook page many subscribers said that the content of programmes is more important than the building from which they are broadcast; and I agree. Provided the BBC World Service can maintain its high standards in news, and in producing and broadcasting innovative, exciting and informative programmes in a multitude of languages we have nothing to worry about. But as I enter middle age, I still can't help feeling that the BBC's departure from Bush House means the loss of something which, like Lilliburlero, gave the station a very unique identity among audiences.

Above all, the World Service's location in Bush House reminded audiences, the BBC itself and the British government that it was part of the BBC and yet separate from it. It was designed for a very particular purpose and had a very distinct mission - to help nation speak peace unto nation.

Most worrying, however, is that the BBC World Service will no longer be funded by the British Foreign Office but will have to compete with the rest of the BBC's output for finance. This means some very tough decisions will have to be made: From Our Own Correspondent or Strictly Come Dancing? Can the BBC justify the World Service to licence fee payers, the majority of whom have never heard its programmes, and may not even know it exists? At a time when governments around the world are expanding their international broadcasting - China in particular is engaged in an aggressive investment programme to expand its reach across the globe - the British are cutting back, closing language services (closing Mandarin is not just a mistake, it is a crime) and forcing the World Service to become a competitor for funding. Can the UK claim to be serious about public diplomacy and soft power while denying its most treasured instrument of international outreach the funds and independence to do its job?

China's soft power - an interview with China Radio International

Just before Christmas I was interviewed by China Radio International about China's soft power. You can listen to the interview here:


I am very pleased that they broadcast most of what I said, even the more critical parts. This is an honour for me as I remember as a young teenager  listening regularly to Radio China International on my Vega Selena 215 shortwave radio.