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.