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