Monday, 22 December 2014

BBC Interview with Xu Lin about Confucius Institutes

The BBC's Shanghai correspondent, John Sudworth, has interviewed Xu Lin, the head of Hanban which is the state ministry responsible for China's Confucius Institutes. An edited version of the interview can be viewed here Interview with Xu Lin.

This is an extraordinary interview on many levels, not least Ms Xu's response to questions about her blatant interference in an academic conference earlier this year. I wrote a post about this incident as one of several 'public diplomacy faux pas', accessible here When to say nothing.

What is most surprising in this interview is not what she said in defence of the Confucius Institutes. Like any government minister across the world, Ms Xu is required to provide an official response to critical questions. Rather, most alarming is her logic: John Sudworth has no right to ask questions about Taiwan because it is a Chinese issue and only the Chinese can address it. This was an entirely inappropriate answer to the question of why she had ripped promotional material about the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation from the programme of an academic conference. It makes no sense in the context of the interview and undermines the more positive tone of her answers to other questions. It also provides the framing for the interview and means that any review will focus on the more dramatic and confrontational portion of the interview, rather than the substance. John Sudworth's decision to post online Ms Xin's request for him to to edit out altogether the question about the conference in Portugal and his refusal to do so means that this and not the cultural diplomacy of the Confucius Institutes become the story. Thus Xu Lin revealed that the Chinese government has much to learn about how the media work, and any claims of communication professionalism among government officials are premature. The interview was yet another public diplomacy faux pas.    

Moreover, Ms Xu resorted to complaining she had not been given in advance any question about the conference in Portugal and therefore refused to answer. This was her chance to explain and, dare we say, even apologise for her violation of academic freedom earlier this year. Any critic seeking evidence of how Confucius Institutes are not simply agents of cultural diplomacy and language teaching will find it here: Xu Lin not only refused to answer difficult questions, she also politicised the Confucius Institutes and reinforced the idea that they are led by dogmatists.

Just as we are assured that China's government communications machinery is becoming more professional, more sensitive to the demands of the modern media age, Xu Lin's interview tells a different story. It does little to reassure viewers that Confucius Institutes are not required to pursue a political agenda decided in Beijing.  The interview is a crowning end to a year in which Chinese public diplomacy has taken one step forward and two steps back.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Lipstick on a Pig: America’s Soft Power is Recoverable

In international politics actions always speak louder than words. Governments claiming to exercise soft power do well to remember this, for how they behave will forever tell a far more commanding and convincing narrative than what they say. When successive US presidents have demanded and actively promoted the spread of democratic values around the world, and agencies representing the state have participated in activities that can be defined only as violations of human rights, America’s credibility suffers.

Such a clear discrepancy between rhetoric and behaviour also exposes the US to allegations of hypocrisy. Should we be surprised that China’s international television service, CCTV-America, has focused overwhelmingly on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, while almost ignoring entirely the clampdown against protestors in Hong Kong?

The publication of the US Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme during George W. Bush’s presidency poses significant soft power challenges. It not only highlights the systematic torture undertaken in the name of national security, but also documents the embarrassing subversion of law and justice by a state that emphasises such values as the core of its foreign policy. We also need to remind ourselves that this is the same administration that asked repeatedly after 9/11: ‘Why do they hate us?’ The publication of the Senate’s report points us towards a possible answer.
Can the US recover its credibility? Yes it can. By following a clear communication strategy, the US can salvage its soft power without the present government having to distance itself in an unconvincing way from its predecessor. And the way to do this is by focusing more on the process of how the world came to know about these terrible acts and less on the acts themselves, as well as by outlining how the US intends to deal with the consequences.

The plan begins with culpability and humility. The CIA and key members of the Bush administration must hold up their hands and admit that these activities are wrong and inexcusable. Any attempt to justify them as part of an anti-terrorist strategy or as carried out in the name of national security has already backfired, and it is a defence that is no longer relevant when global public and media opinion is clear that two wrongs do not make a right.  A clear and modest, self-critical admission of guilt is required. CIA apologists must not be allowed to control the narrative and shape public opinion about the report, and they must not be allowed to employ alternative, less malignant labels such as ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ to describe acts of torture. When their voice is heard, when Vice-President Dick Cheney calls the report ‘full of crap’, the world needs to know that it is heard because America is a democracy and pluralism is encouraged. Within democracies disagreement is expected and can be healthy.

Second, President Obama himself must launch an investigation into the abuses documented in the report and commit America to bringing to trial those responsible. Obama’s response so far has been unsatisfactory: ‘Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,’ he said in a written statement, ‘I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong, in the past.’ This will not satisfy the US’s critics around the world who demand both answers and justice, not just promises that it will never happen again. For American soft power, this is too little, too late.  

The third component of the strategy requires the US government to marshal its entire public diplomacy machinery in a global communication campaign. There is an urgent need to highlight and explain to the world how the publication of the report reflects fundamental values of the American political culture: a commitment to accountability, transparency and scrutiny of government behaviour, as well as the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers built into their creation; and when government agencies break the law, the mechanisms are in place to make sure those responsible are brought to justice, regardless of position or status. This is not spin, a communication activity now tarnished in public opinion by its association with deceit. Rather, it is an understanding that the strengths of the American political culture have a valuable role to play in crafting a measured and accurate response to serious criticisms against it. But transparency and accountability can only be effective themes for public diplomacy if the government explains why only a redacted 525-page summary of a 6,700 page report has been released. There must be a communication strategy in place to deal with the inevitable question: What else are they hiding from us?    

In the modern information age, credibility is the currency of politics; and credibility is generated by building trust, authority and legitimacy, and by ensuring that how you behave is consistent with the values you profess. More importantly, when you are found out – when parts of the state machinery violate the constitution and international law, as well as the core principles you, your government and your nation hold dear and which you promote to others as an ideal to others around the world – how you respond is critical in helping to restore your credibility. Soft power depends on doing the right thing, and being seen to be doing the right thing. As President Obama has noted, ‘this report reminds us … that the character of our country is to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.’

However, there is no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, the best means for maintaining credibility is not to commit the crimes in the first place. The Senate report on CIA torture will cause ripples of indignation around the world and damage American soft power abroad in the short term. If its publication also encourages a period of introspection and critical questioning in the US, there remains hope for America’s otherwise tarnished image in the longer term. Revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programme and the repeated violations of national sovereignty by drone strikes suggest that there is still work to do, and that the US’s soft power is far from guaranteed.    

Friday, 29 August 2014

The F**kwit Factor

This is not a post about public diplomacy or international communications, but it does address an issue I would like to share here.

Knowing little about the world's 4th most populous country, I am currently reading Elisabeth Pisani's wonderful and recommended Indonesia etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation (Granta 2014). I had no idea that Indonesia is made up of 13,466 islands; that 'Jakarta tweets more than any other city on earth,' and that 'around 64 million Indonesians use Facebook' in a country where '80 million live without electricity' (p.3).

Reading Pisani's description of what a British diplomat called the 'Fuckwit Factor', it struck me that in political analysis we sometimes lose sight of human error and fallibility. Shit happens, we are told; and perhaps this can have clear political consequences. Perhaps we read too much into the everyday decisions made by political elites - see grand ambitions, strategies and conspiracies - when in fact they may simply be the result of unexpected intrusions on everyday life.

The relevant passage in Indonesia etc. (pp.32-3):

Around the table, journalists, diplomats and the braver Indonesian intellectuals put forward their theory about who was in, who was out, whether the absence of this minister from that cocktail party signalled that [Suharto] was unhappy with a faction of the military or was a warning to a particular business conglomerate. Since nothing much was known, everything was possible.
A young British diplomat named Jon Benjamin ... frequently came down on the side of what he called the Fuckwit Factor. Behind all the smoke and mirrors, the most likely reason that his minister was not at that cocktail party was that his driver forgot to put petrol in the car. The cancellation of the joint military exercises with Singapore, the postponement of the trade mission to the US, the blackout at the radio station scheduled to broadcast a vice-presidential address: again and again Jon would advance the theory that someone, somewhere, just fucked up. As events unfolded, Jon was often proved right.    

I am sure that any Cold War Soviet or China specialists reading this post will be familiar with the pressure to know who's in and who's out; where is Comrade X on the podium this year, and what does it reveal?

Maybe the lesson is that we need to consider the possible intervention of the Fuckwit Factor a little more often in our analysis of political events, behaviour and decisions.        

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

China: When To Say Nothing

Few governments spend as much on their international outreach - what one might call 'soft power' - than China; and few governments get it wrong so spectacularly and so frequently. The main explanation for this lack of success is the failure to understand the first lesson of public diplomacy: Actions always speak louder than words; and that sometimes, saying or doing nothing is the most strategic course to take.

The discussion about how China's behaviour, at home and abroad, undermines its public diplomacy among the international community has a long history. The literature on China's soft power refers repeatedly to how China's record on human rights, democracy, the treatment of dissidents, and freedom of speech, as well as its behaviour towards Tibet and Xinjiang, challenge the more positive narratives that Beijing prefers to project in its international communication. And yet it seems that the Chinese government has difficulty in grasping that its response to adverse events and criticisms may also have negative consequences for its public diplomacy. In 2014 three events in just two months nurture this critical perspective.

The first event occurred in London on 4 June 2014, the 25th anniversary of the suppression by the People's Liberation Army of the protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Two women, one of whom was Wang Ti-Anna, the daughter of a democracy activist, were shoved away from the Chinese embassy in London by staff who also threw to the ground the flowers the two women wished to leave on the steps ... and this happened in front of television news cameras from across the world. This not only indicates that staff in the embassy fail to understand how public diplomacy works - do not react in ways that will inflame the situation and give journalists the story they seek; if in doubt say and do nothing - but it also suggests that embassy staff had to be seen, by their superiors inside the building or in Beijing, to be doing something, even if it results in bad publicity. You can see the BBC's footage of the event here: Chinese embassy in London

A second related event occurred on 18th August 2014. Clive Palmer, a member of the Australian Parliament, launched a tirade on live television against China and the Chinese. His vile, offensive and racist language has been reported all around the world and has given Palmer more international publicity than he deserves. The Chinese embassy in Canberra should have been advised to issue a statement condemning Palmer and his remarks, but reassuring Australians that the Chinese government recognises he was not speaking for all Australians; that Australia remains an important and friendly country to China; and that relations would not be disrupted by the inanity of one man's comments. That is diplomacy. Instead, China's state-owned newspaper, the Global Times, decided to respond in its English language edition with its own excessive zeal, claiming that Palmer 'serves as a symbol that Australian society has an unfriendly attitude towards China'.  The editorial continued by recommending that Australia 'must be marginalized in China's global strategy'. Again such ill-advised rhetoric only inflames further the situation, demonstrates that China's public diplomacy is neither as sophisticated nor as sensitive as Beijing would like to think, and shows yet again that China is unable to respond in a rational way to criticism. Rather, the government decided to generalise about a whole country from the ramblings of one man, something the Chinese repeatedly accuse westerners of doing about China. Clearly the Chinese government and its embassies need better advice on how to handle the international media. You can see Palmer's outburst here: Clive Palmer and read the Global Times article here Global Times.

The third event is more sinister and perhaps undermines China's soft power more than the other two incidents put together. On 22 July 2014 at the annual conference of the European Association for Chinese Studies in Portugal, China's Vice-Minister Xu Lin, Director-General of the Confucius Institutes, impounded all copies of the conference programme and refused to release them until organisers removed pages she deemed offensive. What was so distasteful for Xu was an acknowledgement in the programme that part of the conference was sponsored by Taiwan's Chiang Ching-kuo (CCK) Foundation. Several pages including an advertisement for the CCK Foundation were ripped from a programme which the Confucius Institute had no role in funding. In a published statement (statement) the President of the EACS, Roger Greatrex, said: 'Providing support for a conference does not give any sponsor the right to dictate parameters to academic topics or to limit open academic presentation and discussion, on the basis of political requirements'. At a time when the role of Confucius Institutes - long celebrated as a shining example of China's public and cultural diplomacy - is being scrutinised closely and debated across the world, but especially in the US, Xu Lin could not have picked a worse time to assert her imaginary authority. It is not surprising that headlines in western media adopted critical, sometimes hostile language in reporting and commenting on this news: "Censorship at the China Studies Meeting" (Inside Higher Education); "China fails the soft power test" (China Spectator); "Beijing's Propaganda Lessons: Confucius Institute officials are agents of Chinese censorship" (Wall Street Journal). Academic institutions will now have reason to be more suspicious of Confucius Institutes, while those who have long suspected their political agenda will have far more credibility.

The lesson here for China is very clear: Think before you speak; think before you act. What you do in response to something that you may find unfavourable or even offensive may backfire and ultimately undermine the credibility of your soft power campaign. When in doubt, say and do nothing.      

Monday, 11 August 2014

Cultural Diplomacy and Government Funding

On the eve of a discussion with colleagues in Prague about Chinese Cultural Diplomacy, my attention has been grabbed by the spill-over into culture of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. I write this as an agnostic about Cultural Diplomacy, someone who is still trying to work through the relationship between the cultural and political.      

The Tricycle Theatre in London, which had been due to host the UK Jewish Film Festival in November, has asked the organisers to 'reconsider' its sponsorship by the Israeli embassy. The Theatre's artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, said: "Given the situation in Israel and Gaza, we do not believe that the festival should accept funding from any party to the current conflict" and offered to replace the embassy's money with its own (The Tricycle Theatre and the UK Jewish Film Festival).

On the surface there seems little merit in the Tricycle Theatre's decision. It is possible to argue that all governments subsidise culture; it is difficult to know how many of the smaller cultural industries, performers and artists could survive without government subsidies. And subsidising does not necessarily mean interference or control. What we know from the case of the Jewish Film Festival is that funding from the Israeli embassy was not donated with any preconditions about what can and cannot be shown; there was no interference in a programme which included a Palestinian story, participation by a Palestinian actor, and a documentary examining in a critical way the role of the Israeli security forces in Gaza.

However, the Tricycle Theatre decided to let culture be culture, and that the Jewish Film Festival is best served by ensuring detachment from institutionalised politics; that the films themselves may or may not be political, but the power of interpretation ultimately lies with the audience; and that the artistic integrity of the Jewish Film Festival is far more important that the £1,400 offered by the Israeli embassy. The danger is that by accepting government money such Festivals are associating themselves - and their staff, volunteers and even their audiences who have no say in the matter - with political agendas beyond their control. It is worth reminding ourselves that although the media reporting this story have used the word 'boycott', there is no evidence of any intention to boycott the Festival, only the sponsorship offered by the Israeli embassy; the Tricycle Theatre agreed to fund its involvement in the Jewish Film Festival.

Cultural Diplomacy is founded on the principle that culture can transcend politics; that in times of crisis it can promote mutual understanding, build relationships, and generate familiarity with otherwise unfamiliar ways of looking at the world. Regardless of Israeli sponsorship these aims may have been satisfied. However, Cultural Diplomacy works best when the cultural industries maintain as much distance as possible from government, government agendas and government money. Accepting sponsorship by the Israeli embassy at such a difficult and sensitive time may have unnecessarily politicised the films, confused for many audiences the differences between Israeli and Jewish (the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe is a disturbing and a thoroughly ugly response to Israel's offensive in Gaza), and thereby undermined the credibility of the Festival's Cultural Diplomacy credentials.

And lest anyone is sceptical about the ability of culture to transcend politics, even in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, take a look at the work of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late cultural commentator, Edward Said, the Orchestra brings together young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and other Arab nations. Not everyone has seen the merit of this conversation, and the Orchestra has been subject to abuse and even boycotts; but the musicians agree that sharing their joy of music with each other and with audiences is far more important than their political identity. Watch an introduction to the Orchestra here: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra      

Friday, 25 April 2014

Pew Research on China and the US: A Soft Power Dimension

To coincide with President Obama's trip to Asia, the Pew Research Center has released the results of its latest public opinion surveys undertaken in those countries he will visit (Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Malaysia). The questions were designed to not only ascertain not only the popularity of, but also the strength of feeling about ties with the US and China. Finally, the survey tried to measure the impact of current territorial disputes with China on public opinion.

The results will make for sombre reading in Beijing, and should be of major concern to the state agencies in China responsible for strategic communication and international engagement.

The first interpretation of the data is that the 'power' - the political dimension - in 'soft power' matters.  As I have argued elsewhere (All fluff and no substance), and as USC's Philip Seib has also noted (Putting a hard edge on soft power), we are in danger of losing sight of soft power as a strategic enabler. In many ways, the core disciplines of international relations and communications have been seduced by the idealism inherent in soft power so that it has become a fashionable catch-all label for an activity that all governments must 'do' otherwise they are out of step with the times. There is a danger that the term has become an 'empty signifier' (Hayden, 2012: 47; Critchley and Marchart, 2004). The production and reproduction of discourses about soft power may ultimately be more important and possess more strength than the original meaning. So the questions about soft power - its meaning and application - must be: Power to achieve what? Over whom? How do the intangible benefits of outreach (international broadcasting, for example, or student exchanges) translate into discrete tangibles that advance the political and strategic agenda of the source?

This is important for the China's public diplomacy cadres studying the results of the latest Pew research. Despite Beijing's apparent confidence in the belief that 'to know us is to love us', its soft power push in three out of four areas surveyed is having little impact, even though the Asia-Pacific remains a primary target of China's endeavours to sell itself as a peaceful and responsible regional power (Malaysia is the exception, and I will defer to my colleagues who know far more about Malaysia's international relations to provide a possible explanation for this). The number of respondents who said it is more important to have strong ties with China rather than the US is shockingly low, making the political meanings of the poll quite transparent (again, Malaysia was the exception). Clues for reason are found in the responses to the question: How big a problem are territorial disputes between China and your country? Given the on-going disagreements about sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the results are not that surprising. Politics matters; and actions - how a state behaves at home and abroad - will always speak louder than words. Presentation is only as good as the policy it is designed to sell.   


Hayden, C. (2012), The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts (Lanham, MD: Lexington)

Critchley, S. & O. Marchart (eds.) (2004), Laclau: A Critical Reader (London: Routledge)

Saturday, 15 February 2014

On Referenda: Switzerland and immigration, 2014

On Sunday 9th February, Switzerland held a referendum on imposing a quota on immigration and opposing the free movement of workers between the EU and Switzerland. The political party that sponsored the vote, the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), won by just 0.6% - 50.3% of participants supported the measure - meaning that in three years time the Swiss government must either renegotiate or revoke the agreement with the EU that allows the free movement of people, or revoke the agreement. In addition to setting quotas, it also means that the government will impose limits on the ability of immigrants to bring their families to live in Switzerland, to access social security benefits and to request asylum. It is the latest expression of worrying right-wing anti-immigration sentiment that has been growing across Europe.

Advocates of referenda believe that they offer a solution to the problems of modern representative democracy, enabling citizens to encounter the power and enlightenment associated the a more direct form of participation. Referenda are valued because they apparently fulfil the criteria of democratic politics and political communication: They are dialogical because they encourage participation between elections; and they are far more representative than opinion polls which rely on generalising from small samples of respondents. Elections are useful in deciding which political party should form a government, but are limited as a method of consulting public opinion, principally because voters do not enjoy an opportunity to register their views between elections, and because we are asked to vote for a complete party package, not decide our preferences on individual issues. Finally, many electoral systems allow governments to win by a minority of votes cast; can we therefore conclude that they are truly representative? 

In addition, referenda are thought to circumvent other potentially powerful institutions that are poised between citizens and their government, including parties, pressure groups and the media; and finally referenda are considered educative (รก la John Stuart Mill) because they encourage governments and other groups supporting a referendum to provide as much information as possible about very specific issues. If the voters are expected to register their preference (there is usually only 'a' preference which requires the voter to answer 'yes' or 'no') on a complicated issue, then it is attendant upon the opposing sides to communicate their position fully and in an accessible way. If the technicalities are not communicated in such a way that electors will understand the issues, how can they be expected to be sufficiently interested to participate? In this view, referenda are anti-elitist and democratic, and therefore require simplification.

And this is the primary danger with referenda - that a campaign will OVER simplify an issue, thus persuading voters to respond according to their emotions rather than reason. This is a particularly serious possibility in the modern age of political advertising and the prevalence of the sound-bite culture. Moreover, a referendum campaign seeks to maximise voters; numbers are more important than arguments, and victory is measured by how many votes a campaign can marshal, not about its persuasiveness or ability to forge a consensus through reasoned argument. The educative and deliberative reason for holding them vanishes, and the referendum becomes a zero-sum game with winners and losers with hardened opinions, reinforced by a style of news coverage that mirrors the horse-race reporting of elections. In other words, referenda may actually devalue the very acts of political communication and participation they are though to encourage. They are merely another means of voting, and therefore do not facilitate the kind of participation so cherished by their advocates. In reporting the Swiss referendum on immigration, The Guardian (15 February 2014) noted:

Perhaps the most clever aspect of the SVP's strategy was that they rarely specified what kind of immigration they were talking about. "They won the vote when they were allowed to use the term 'mass immigration,' said George Sheldon ... "Who could possibly be for 'mass' anything"? (The Guardian)

The report describes the kind of emotional campaigning that induces fear and panic among voters: the SVP remained vague about the kind of 'mass immigration' they feared and from where these immigrants would flood into Switzerland. Most of the arguments 'employ the future tense: the referendum was above all ... about "people who could come to settle here"' (ibid.)

Even opposition politicians show some grudging respect for the SVP's campaign. "We underestimated them,' says ... Christoph Brutschin, a social democrat. "They ran a very polite campaign, so the opposition retaliated politely. Then, only a few days before the vote, out came the more populist posters with the women in veils" (ibid. Emphasis added). 

Referenda encourage populism and in this case, easy (lazy) stereotyping, and sometimes governments must defy public opinion in the long-term interests of the country. Effective political leadership leads, and though it should consult, it does not follow. Amendment 2 of Colorado's constitution, introduced by the initiative variety of referendum to curb the civil rights of homosexuals was subsequently overturned by the US Supreme Court, suggesting that 'elitism' may be a necessary safeguard against the dangers of populism. The complexity of arguments is reduced to easily communicated and registered images and labels that are familiar to students of propaganda.     
Referenda are themselves elitist: they are managed by governments, parties or political authorities that possess the power to decide which issues shall be put to a referendum, the form of the question asked, whether the vote will be decided by a simple majority or by a minimum turnout, and when the referendum shall take place. Perhaps referenda are merely used to achieve preferred outcomes or, more worryingly, to pass the responsibility for dangerous and irresponsible decision-making to voters.   

There is no empirical evidence to support the idea that citizens in democracies prefer to communicate their preferences through referenda than through other methods. In fact, it is possible to identify the influence of the Law of Diminishing Returns - the more of something one has, the less satisfaction it yields - because there appears to be a direct correlation between the frequency of referenda and falling turnout. Even in Switzerland, referenda capital of the world, turnout is hardly spectacular: In a national referendum in February 2003, 70.3% voted in favour of extending the range of issues on which the Swiss could have a say. However, that was 70.3% of a 28% turnout. Even in referenda on issues of national importance, such as the ending of Swiss neutrality and membership of the United Nations in March 2002, only 58% bothered to vote. In the February 2014 referenda on immigration, the turnout was only 55.8%. Just over half of those who had a right to vote did so, and half agreed with the proposition, meaning that a small number of Swiss have decided the future of immigrants, their families, and Switzerland's position in the EU.

To summarise, the appeal of referenda derives from their essence of democratic legitimacy; decisions are considered more legitimate if they have been arrived at by soliciting popular opinion. Hence, referendums are a device of political communication that are thought to encourage participation and facilitate open and transparent government. However, their success depends on voter interest and participation - why should we assume that voters will be any more inspired by referenda than they are by elections? - the quality of information that is provided by both sides in a campaign, and the news coverage of the referendum. In short, we cannot expect referenda to reproduce the conditions and effects of a direct form of democracy. At best, they are a useful but flawed device of political communication; at worst, they are an expression of ill-informed populism.