Tuesday, 29 May 2012

An interesting few days in Chinese soft power

Phil Seib of the USC Centre on Public Diplomacy has published an interesting blog on Chinese soft power (http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/index.php/newswire/cpdblog_detail/the_first_soft-power_superpower/). I share Phil's assessment of China's exercise of soft power and its public diplomacy strategy.

Phil's posting comes at the end of a very interesting week which I think clearly reveals a degree of confusion in Beijing about what soft power is, how it works and what the government would like to achieve by exercising it.

We witnessed a minor victory for China in persuading the US State Department to reverse a ruling on accreditation that would have had serious consequences for the work of the Confucius Institutes. Needless to say the major Chinese newspapers were extremely vocal in protest (though the escape of Chen Guangcheng's brother, Chen Guangfu, received no coverage). It is interesting to consider whether this reversal (as it was described by the Chinese media) by the State Department represents the impact of hard power on soft power in that traditional diplomatic institutions are engaged in dispute about the architecture of their soft power strategies(?) There is clearly an interaction taking place here that deserves further consideration. I have not found much coverage of this event in the American media and would welcome from my State-side friends any comments on whether and how this has been reported.     

At the same time, China was extremely critical of the publication in the US of the State Department's annual report on human rights which singled out human rights abuses in the PRC. China's State Council Information Office almost immediately hit back by publishing its own Human Rights Record of the United States in 2011. More information is available here http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-05/26/content_15391823.htm. While of course China is both entitled and correct to point out the double standards in US discourse, to do so in response to the publication of the US's report reveals the PRC's insecurity and lack of confisence in its growing stature; the reactive and defensive nature of China's ppublic diplomacy; and perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that China has still not learned that being able to tolerate (even if you cannot accept) international criticism is a major asset in soft power terms.

The final interesting development over the last week was the visit by 51 ambassadors and ministers from 49 countries to the Publicity Department. Not surprisingly the official Chinese media reported how the visitors had enjoyed their visit, had asked many interesting questions and learned a lot (see  http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-05/25/content_15383436.htm). Of course diplomats would not say anything else in fear of insulting their hosts. What is important here is that the visit took place at all: the Publicity Department is the English name for the Propaganda Bureau of the Communist Party which is located in an unmarked building next to the seat of power in Beijing, Zhongnanhai. This seems to be another step in China's determination to convert (at least for foreign audiences) propaganda into public diplomacy.

By far the best description of the structure and inner working of the Propaganda Bureau/Publicity Department is Anne-Marie Brady's Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (2009).   

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

To be cultural diplomacy or not to be cultural diplomacy?

Last Friday and Saturday I participated in the first meeting of a new network of scholars interested in cultural diplomacy, organised by colleagues at the Universities of Bath and Swansea. The most exciting, and in many ways the most challenging, aspect of this meeting was its interdisciplinarity. After spending a week at the International Studies Association talking almost exclusively with colleagues working in public diplomacy from an international relations or international communications perspective, I was now discussing the subject with colleagues from area studies, cultural studies, linguistics and sociology. Needless to say we had some extremely interesting conversations which have helped me to understand better the cultural processes and products involved in cultural diplomacy. Not least was the challenge from some to define cultural diplomacy, and some arrived at the conclusion that definitions are not that important, and in fact can be restrictive. Also, where do cultural relations end, and cultural diplomacy begin?

In one of our breakout group meetings I raised the example of the current push in the UK to promote Shakespeare who, like Dickens at the start of the year, is now appearing like a rash across the Radio 4, BBC 2 and 3 schedules. I pose my questions here, but can offer no answers as these are 'thoughts in progress'. I would be delighted to see the opinions of those who read this blog.

The first question is about Shakespeare as a cultural diplomacy product. Why do we suppose that Shakespeare represents Britain (or, more specifically England), and who decides? Is this a particular view of British culture that only represents a part of the nation? For many of my neighbours on the working class council estate in Bradford where I grew up, Shakespeare does not represent their culture. So whose culture are we promoting, and why? Does this remain a class issue? Or educational? Or something else?

The second question arises from a colleague's response to these observations at Bath. Shakespeare is known throughout the world and is performed on a regular basis in foreign languages, with the drama localised for specific cultural settings. In other words, Shakespeare has been appropriated. What are the consequences of this for cultural diplomacy? Is there a point where the appropriation means dilution, and the original product becomes hidden, or even disappears altogether? Does it matter if some audiences watching a foreign language performance of Hamlet in some remote corner of the world have never heard of Shakespeare? If they cannot connect that performance to the UK, does it mean that Shakespeare has no cultural diplomacy relevance?

I will continue to ponder these questions, and I look forward to your comments.