Wednesday, 29 February 2012

China's soft power and public diplomacy

Here is a recording of a talk I gave in Oxford two weeks ago. It was part of the Media & Governance Seminar Series for the Programme in Comparative Media, Law and Policy.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The 'Facebook Revolutions,' 2011

At the weekend I participated in a fascinating workshop organised at Leeds University about the Arab Spring and Asia. Colleagues representing Middle East Studies, Politics, Development Studies, Asian Studies and Sociology met to discuss the recent political events in the Arab world (the 'Arab Spring') and their ripple effects across Asia. I was asked to introduce a discussion on New Social Movements, Media and Technology, and we had a lively debate. I thought it appropriate to share some of our thoughts here.

I expressed my unease with the idea that these were the Facebook or Social Media revolutions. Would the unrest have occurred anyway? After all, the European revolutions of 1848 had spread across the continent within two weeks; and the events of 1989 occurred with the help of satellite television and the fax machine. Besides, there is something determinist about claiming that these were social media uprisings, and I am very uncomfortable with that idea. Social media are simply another tool that can expedite events; they facilitate speed, mobilisation and the demonstration effect; but the uprisings were started, fed and endured by people struggling for the human condition.

Nevertheless there are three key things to note about the events of 2011.

First, a new generation of the digitally-literate is comfortable with these technologies, but also with the consequences of these technologies: networks, flat hierarchies, the convergence of platforms, and the ease with which anyone can now be the source, producer and consumer of news, information and opinion. We can see the same thing happening in Burma with the use of camera phones to capture videos of human rights abuses that are then downloaded to The Voice of Burma in Scandanavia before publication and circulation on the web.

Second, we cannot discount the role of television, and especially Al-Jazeera which is considered a credible and authoritative source of news in and about the Middle East. The difference now is that Al-Jazeera was one of the first TV stations to depend on 'citizen journalism' and social media to inform its programming.

Third, the reaction of the old political guard in the Middle East was interesting. They demonstrated that governments are beginning to realise 'if you can't beat them, join them'; and while in both Tunisia and Egypt the government did try to use old-fashioned techniques to control communication (technologies and the sources, and using censorship) they quickly recognised the possible value in trying to control the narrative itself. So the credibility of the political opposition that was tweeting and blogging and Facebooking was routinely discredited and their legitimacy questioned. It reminded me of the so-called 50 cent party in China - groups of young netizens who are paid for posting pro-govermement opinions on the web, thus trying to spin and manage the flow of information.

There was a consensus among the participants that the social media were a tool only in the 2011 uprisings, and that new media were in some senses a distraction from the reality of what was actually happening. There was a claim that by focusing on, and overestimating the importance of the social media we remove agency from the debates (especially when we lose sight of the fact that these were not 'Facebook' revolutions, but Tunisian Revolutions and Egyptian Revolutions). The uprisings (there was some discomfort with the term revolutions since only regimes and not whole social orders had been replaced) would have happened anyway. We need to look at the antecedents of these events and understan the long-term context. Struggles against oppression, corruption, and poverty have a long history in this part of the world - they did not just suddenly erupt in 2011.  For this reason, the term Arab Spring is innaccurate (one participant said 'offensive') because it denies the historical specificities and processes, and suggests these uprisings appeared from nowhere. It also raises questions about news agendas and the way the Facebook Revolution and Arab Spring are simple and sexy tags for these otherwise complex events.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Chinese soft power and credibility

I wrote this piece for The China Daily and then I decided to ask them not to publish it. So, I thought I would post it here. I think that current reports coming out of China about increased repression in Tibet and areas of Tibetan residency (for example Sichuan) demonstrate the continued problems China faces in the credibility of its message. See this report from the Guardian newspaper which details some of the hearts and minds techniques China is using in Tibet (including old-fashioned re-education) and also its attempt to control media reporting of events there

Is this newspaper an example of China’s soft power? It is, after all, published in English and provides news, information and comment about China for an international audience. Does it help attract interest in China? Will it mobilise public opinion and change the way readers think about China? Has it changed your mind? There is no doubt that The China Daily is an important part of what often appears to be titanic soft power push by the Chinese government which spends a reported $9 billion per year on soft power activities (making China the highest soft power spender in Asia). China has certainly embraced the idea that soft power can make a difference with an enthusiasm rarely witnessed elsewhere: Confucius Institutes, promotional videos in New York’s Times Square, pandas arriving at Edinburgh Zoo – China’s soft power strategy explores new and innovative techniques of attracting global attention, while remembering that History and culture can also resonate with international audiences.

The problem with any soft power strategy is finding the answer to the all-important question: Is it working? In designing their international outreach programmes many governments concentrate too much on outputs (how many viewers does CCTV 9 have? How many foreign students are studying in China? How many people have seen the exhibition of the Terracotta Army at the British Museum?) and pay far too little attention to impact. Outputs are an important indicator, but as with any statistic they tell only a partial story. So knowing the box office takings for a Chinese film released in the US allows us to appreciate how many people bought tickets, but tells us nothing about their opinions of the film, or even if they stayed awake during it! Let’s take a look at some evidence:

In a 2005 poll conducted in 22 countries, the BBC World Service found that 48% of respondents had a positive image of China, and 30% a negative image. Of the Asian countries surveyed, 55% of respondents had a positive image.

In a 2011 poll, the number of respondents in 22 countries with a positive image of China fell to 44%, with 38% having a negative image. In Asian countries, the number of positive images fell by 14% to 41%.  Similar data is found in other credible surveys conducted by Gallup, Pew Global Attitudes and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Clearly these are disturbing results for China since they suggest that despite the expansion in soft power activities, both the regional and international profiles of China have gone down.

 Here is a more anecdotal item of evidence: At the opening of the 2011 China Movie Culture Week at New York’s Lincoln Centre, not one single person attended the premier of the movie, Founding of the Republic (建国大) , financed by the Communist Party’s largest state-owned film company, China Film Corporation. Several other events in China Movie Culture Week were cancelled due to poor attendance.

The problem is what we might call the ‘credibility gap’. In many parts of the world public opinion identifies a very clear discrepancy between China’s soft power message and its domestic and foreign policy behaviour. Moreover, Chinese media struggle to build and maintain credibility among their potential audiences. Because CCTV and Xinhua are located within China’s state system, they lack the kind of credibility that the BBC, Al-Jazeera and CNN enjoy. Audiences are naturally suspicious that CCTV is a mere channel for the dissemination of propaganda rather than soft power. Perhaps if China Movie Culture Week had not chosen to show Founding of the Republic with its obvious patriotic themes and its connection to the Communist Party, but had instead shown a film made by an independent director with no political agenda, it may have fared better. It would also have signalled that China is changing and is not using the same kind of blunt propaganda that it did in the past. Films such as Changwei Gu's Love for Life (), which tackles the very sensitive and previously taboo subject of AIDS, have enormous soft power potential because they demonstrate changing attitudes in China. So soft power credibility is not just a condition of autonomy; it is also predicated on (i) a consistency between the message and practice (whenever a story emerges about poisoned milk, repression in Tibet, a Chinese Nobel Prize winner being denied the opportunity to collect his prize, or the arrest of an internationally-famous artist such as Ai Wei Wei, China’s soft power suffers a set-back); and (ii) a capacity to accept criticism as a natural consequence of international engagement without retreating into a fierce nationalist rhetoric that believes anyone who criticises China is by definition anti-Chinese.  Perhaps this is the key to understanding how China’s soft power may have more impact consistent with its expenditure and effort in the soft power domain. Presentation can never be a substitute for policy.