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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

The (propaganda) empire strikes in China

August 24, 2010

By Kent Ewing 

HONG KONG - When seven-foot, six-inch Yao Ming dunks a basketball, does the world smile on China? When pianist Lang Lang, the Chinese Liberace, sparkles in concert, does China's political star glow a little brighter in the firmament of nations? And when Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, the richest person of Chinese descent in the world, banks another billion dollars on shrewd investments, is the image of the Chinese nation also enriched? 

That's what China's leaders are hoping for as they enlist 50 Chinese celebrities in an unprecedented international advertising campaign to improve the country's global image. The charm offensive is set to begin this September, ahead of celebrations for 61st birthday of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, and will also feature Olympic diving diva Guo Jingjing, film director John Woo and movie star Jackie Chan. The famous 50 will appear in 30-second television commercials as well as a 15-minute promotional film selling China's virtues to the rest of the world. 

In the words of the State Council, China's cabinet, the campaign will present an image of "prosperity, democracy, openness, peace and harmony" as a counter to the negative stereotypes about the country that its leaders have long blamed the Western media for promulgating. How effective this strike will be, however, remains highly uncertain. 

For years now, Beijing has been struggling to use its so-called "soft power" to raise its global image, aiming to match its growing economic clout with a heightened appreciation of Chinese culture and political ideals. This glitzy international celebrity troupe is just the latest public-relations gambit in a strained, ongoing effort that has, so far, fallen flat. While there is no question that China'sremarkable economic success over the past 30 years has stunned the world, a recent BBC poll shows that people in an increasing number of countries have a negative view of China's rise. 

Yet this is the country that, in 2008, staged what were arguably the most successful Olympic Games ever and is currently hosting the World Expo in its gloriously reborn financial center, Shanghai. The frustrated Chinese leadership team, from President Hu Jintao on down, must be scratching their heads and wondering what they have to do to earn some international respect. 

After all, other polls show that Chinese people, both in China and in the vast Chinese diaspora, have never been more patriotic. They clearly think it's cool to be Chinese in the 21st century in the same way that it was cool to be American in the 20th. When, they wonder, will the rest of the world catch on? 

The celebrity-powered promotional campaign is intended to convince the doubting global public that the Chinese model, from top to bottom, is worthy of admiration and emulation. But it, like all previous efforts to present a false image of the country, is doomed to fail until the new, economically triumphant China drops its geriatric propaganda strategies and truly engages the international community in an honest dialogue. 

For several years now, Beijing has been engaged in a public-relations blitz in a multiplicity of languages. Confucius Institutes teaching Chinese language and culture have sprouted up across the world while state media have greatly expanded their global reach. 

Last year alone, the central government spent 45 billion yuan (US$6.6 billion) to increase the international influence of the Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television (CCTV) and China Radio International (CRI). CCTV added a Russian-language service and an Arabic-language channel that reaches 300 million people in 22 countries. CRI can now be heard in 43 different languages, and Xinhua is adding 117 bureaus around the world. 

In addition, last year saw Chinese leaders welcome international media bigwigs such as News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch and the former British Broadcasting Cooperation's former executive, Richard Sambrook to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for the first World Media Summit, dubbed the "Media Olympics". It also witnessed the international launch of the English-language version of the Global Times, as well as a US edition of China Daily, the primary English-language mouthpiece for the Chinese government. 

In July, Xinhua launched CNC World, a global English-language news channel that is modeled on CNN, the BBC and al-Jazeera, with one significant exception: its total lack of objectivity on any story even remotely related to China. 

But apparently this extravagantly expensive media onslaught was not enough to win the world's affection. So now Yao, Lang, Li and a host of celebrity comrades have been asked to do their part to soften the global image of China. And there is every reason to expect that they will do a superb job in a slick production that makes an irresistibly strong case for their rising nation. Remember, this is the country that last week surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world and that for three decades has averaged double-digit annual growth, lifting tens of millions of people out of abject poverty and into the middle class. There's a lot to brag about. 

The problem, however, is that, no matter how winning the new promotional campaign turns out to be, China will also continue to make news in a variety of unflattering ways. While it is true that Beijing often does not get a fair shake in the Western media - China-bashing and fear-inspired stereotypes abound - that is not the main reason for all those negative poll ratings. 

Let's face it: it's hard for the world to warm to a country that is the only friend and supporter of regimes such as that of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Chinese leaders have stood by Kim as his country defied international sanctions to develop nuclear weapons. Beijing also single-handedly blocked a condemnation of North Korea by the United Nations SecurityCouncil (UNSC) for a torpedo attack last March that sank the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. 

Just this month, the 86-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1987, made yet another pilgrimage to Great Hall of the People, where he was greeted as an old friend by Hu. Mugabe followed up his hobnobbing with Chinese leaders in Beijing with a shopping spree in Hong Kong; meanwhile, his country is falling apart, and his callous indifference to the plight of his people stands as an affront to humanity. 

Note that Chinese leaders did not ask Kim, Mugabe or any of Beijing's other despot-buddies to make cameo appearances in their latest public-relations bonanza. Nor will there be any mention of China's support for another international pariah, Myanmar, whose military junta has held the country's rightfully elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years. 

At home, the leadership's heavy-handed suppression of protests in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang continues to draw international opprobrium and, underscoring the wrongheadedness of Beijing's approach, serves only to further alienate the people of those regions from the central government and to flame even more dissent. 

In the end, the greatest self-defeating irony of China's global media blitz is the shackles that its leaders place on national media and the great firewall of censorship they have attempted to erect in cyberspace. China's state propaganda machine may be reaching out to the world, but an army of censors at home is busy blocking the world from reaching China. This was the harsh lesson learned by Internet giant Google this year when its China contract was threatened by a censorship dispute that ended with no guarantee that the central government will not continue to censor the company's China website

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk 
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