A New Charm Offensive

China is eager to present a new image of itself to the world by engaging the public instead of issuing directives.
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China's Vice President Xi Jinping unveils Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute in Melbourne, June 20, 2010.
China's Vice President Xi Jinping unveils Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute in Melbourne, June 20, 2010.

Keen to shake off the image of a secretive and authoritarian government, Beijing has launched a public relations offensive in recent weeks, with media training programs for the ruling Communist Party and top officials throwing their weight behind Chinese cultural diplomacy around the globe.

The new policy comes at a particularly sensitive time as the international community monitors Beijing's reaction in recent weeks to "Jasmine" revolution-style calls for political reforms to address government inefficiency and stem rampant corruption.

"Public diplomacy was a hot topic of discussion at this year's parliamentary sessions [in March]," according to a recent report in the Beijing-based China Arts News.

"Public diplomacy is the means by which the government of one country promotes itself to the people of another country."

"The government leads the process, with participation from the people, and public diplomacy is quite a powerful diplomatic force," the article said.

"Diplomacy is easily accepted when it makes use of the medium of the arts."

Wu Fan, editor of the U.S.-based magazine China Affairs, said the cultural exchanges promoted by a worldwide network of more than 600 Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes and school-based programs are a disguised form of propaganda for Beijing.

"Public diplomacy through the arts right now is state propaganda wearing white gloves," Wu said. "Because if the government is blatant about its propaganda, no one will listen."

"They are wearing a new mask, and speaking their message in a gentler way," he said. "There may be artists in the spotlight, but behind the scenes, someone is manipulating them."

But he said no amount of speeches from Chinese artistic ambassadors could reverse the image of China created by the detention and suppression of Western journalists, especially following online calls for "Jasmine" protests against Communist Party rule inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.

"During the recent calls for Jasmine events, strolling demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai, some Western journalists were detained," Wu said.

"You can't erase an impression like that."

Media training

Nevertheless, Beijing officials appear determined to try.

Beijing has rolled out a series of media training days for senior Communist Party cadres in recent weeks.

Among the trainers was former Olympics spokesman Guo Weimin.

"We should see the media with a fair and just view," Guo told the assembled spokesmen and women for top-level Party committees.

China began setting up its official spokesperson system in government departments several years ago, but recently the system has been extended to the more secretive committees of the Communist Party, which have more political power than government departments.

Currently, committees and working groups at every level are in the process of training spokespersons, analysts say.

"Don't be hostile or look down on them. Respond to media interview requests positively and prepare yourselves well," Guo told his trainees.

"Don't be irritated or dragged around by sensitive questions ... Be honest and confident," Guo was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

Official familiarity with media requirements is in especial demand "after an emergency," Guo warned the officials in a training event held late last month.

Wang Chen, event organizer and director of the Party's International Communication Office, said cadres should release information in a timely and authoritative manner.

"Spokespersons should integrate what Party departments want to say, what the media wants to know, and what Party members and civilians need to perform their work," Wang said.

Controlling public opinion

Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine Beijing Spring, said however that media training is unlikely to make much difference to levels of openness in government.

"In more democratic countries with greater press freedom, the media isn't owned by the government, nor by any political party," Hu said. "But in China, all the media, big and small, are the mouthpieces of the government and the Party."

"So anything the government officials say is just endlessly repeated."

Hu said Beijing hopes to use more effective methods to increase its control over public opinion.

"They want to increase their ability to completely permeate the thinking of ordinary people," he added.

Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) spokesman Zhao Qizheng said in March that public diplomacy has already achieved a lot for China.

"Public diplomacy did not begin yesterday in China," he said. "We have achieved a lot in people-to-people diplomacy."

CPPCC foreign affairs committee member Cai Jianguo also called during the parliamentary sessions for funding for the education of overseas Chinese in their cultural heritage, including language training.

The government should prepare overseas Chinese to become "ambassadors for China," Cai said.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Confucius Institutes say that their budget—around U.S. $167 million annually according to government figures, much of which comes from overseas donations—is too small for the scheme to be considered a serious channel for Beijing's political agenda.

The program recently added 40 new institutes and 97 school-based Mandarin programs last year, enrolling a total of 360,000 students last year, compared with an estimated global total of 40 million students of Mandarin worldwide.

Confucius Institutes operate under the aegis of the education ministry, for the purpose of "educating people worldwide about Chinese language and culture," according to publicity materials.

Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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