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.