China needs good spokesmen

November 04, 2019 15:11
Under President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, China has signed agreements with 126 countries and 29 international organizations. Photo: HKEJ

On Oct. 29, Belgium banned Song Xinning, head of the Confucius Institute at a Brussels university, and barred him from entering Europe's passport-free Schengen zone for eight years for spying. Beijing denies the accusation.

The Confucius Institute is the main arm of the Chinese government to spread its message in campuses globally. At least 27 universities around the world have terminated ties with Confucius Institutes, including campuses in the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Canada; others have reversed decisions to break ground on an institute.

This was the most dramatic failure this year of China’s mission to export its soft power around the world. Beijing is losing the battle – it has good stories to tell but does not have effective ways of telling them.

The opponents of Beijing have eloquent spokesmen with global connections who get their message heard in the mainstream media – the Dalai Lama for Tibet, Joshua Wong Chi-fung for Hong Kong, President Tsai Ying-wen for Taiwan and the Uighur exiles for Xinjiang.

They have persuaded the governments and the public in Europe and North America that they have the moral right against Beijing.

Why does China get such unfavorable press in the developed world?

The main reason is the rigid Stalinist system within which Chinese officials work. Orders come from the top down. Public statements are carefully prepared and revised by senior officials before being given to their underlings to deliver. News conferences are scripted to ensure that the politically correct message is delivered.

Each word is carefully chosen – “Taiwan”, never the “Republic of China”; “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, not “North Korea”; the Dalai Lama is a “splittist” or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Officials are well trained and know the official script. They may not depart from it.

The system does not reward the eloquent and those good in debate; if you question a decision, you must do so only in internal meetings, never in public. You must not establish a persona that could overshadow that of your superiors.

This system works well in China; journalists, editors and those who control social media know the rules and the dangers of breaking them.

But it works less well outside the country’s borders. Audiences there want to hear a "normal" voice and someone speaking in his or her own words. They do not want the wooden language of official communiqués.

The Chinese government has an impressive economic story to tell. Over the last 30 years, it has lifted 850 million people out of poverty, something never achieved by any nation on earth. Visitors to its cities do not see the beggars, street sleepers or squatter homes common in developing countries. They also feel safe, with gun ownership severely restricted.

In 20 years, China has built the world’s largest high-speed railway network, which accounts for two-thirds of such trains in the world. It is the envy of many countries, including those in the developed world. It has more than 2,600 universities that produce seven million graduates a year.

Are these achievements not worth boasting about?

Step out of China and you enter the fierce war for access to the world’s media. This requires skillful lobbying and personal connections. If a government cannot gain this access, it must pay for it through lobbyists, public relations companies, advisors and law firms. Beijing is not skilled at this. Its diplomats and officials abroad are constrained in whom they can meet and what they can do. They watch and report on each other. It is unwise to become too close to foreigners, especially Westerners. How can they seize the narrative and turn it to their advantage?

Take the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the national strategies of President Xi Jinping since he announced it in 2013. China has signed BRI agreements with 126 countries and 29 international organizations.

As part of its wider conflict with China, the US is working hard to discredit the BRI. It stresses how certain recipient countries – like Laos, the Maldives and Sri Lanka – find it difficult or impossible to service the debt they have taken on to complete BRI projects.

The mainstream media have published many articles on this theme.

The BRI has many supporters in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. These countries are delighted to obtain capital to build infrastructure projects they cannot afford from their own budgets. The key is not the BRI money itself but the ability of countries to use the loans well and ensure repayment.

In Algeria, for example, local and Chinese firms are building the country’s largest industrial project for 10 years, with investment of US$6 billion. It will produce 10 million tons of phosphate fertilizer in the east and northeast of the country. It aims to make Algeria the world’s third-largest exporter of fertilizer and cut its dependence on oil and gas. It will generate more than 14,600 jobs during the construction phase.

But who knows about this project outside Algeria?

When you manufacture a good product, you must know how to sell it as well as how to make it.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.