Archive for March 2012

Cultural Diplomacy in Multiple Dimensions

It’s been “all Public Diplomacy all the time” this week at George Washington University, with many exciting events surrounding the IPDGC’s Hip Hop Diplomacy: Connecting Through Culture conference on Tuesday afternoon, 3/27. (Note: here’s the conference final program; check the IPDGC website soon for the full conference video.)

Tara Sonenshine

First, we are delighted to see that conference keynote speaker Tara Sonenshine, currently Executive Vice President at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has just been confirmed by the Senate as the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

Ms. Sonenshine spoke passionately at the IPDGC conference about the importance of addressing challenges to women. She emphasized the power of individuals, and the role of cultural exchange in inspiring individuals to action. She described public diplomacy as a key “inclusionary” strategy that can help put women together with powerful institutions of government and business. Getting women into such loci of power “is a national security issue for us, and for everyone,” Ms. Sonenshine noted.

Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak

After her remarks, a terrific panel took the conference floor to talk about their international public diplomacy experience sharing sports, music, and journalism skills with young women (and men) around the world.  U.S. Soccer star Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak joined award-winning hip hop and R&B artist Toni Blackman, directors of the youth media training organization GlobalGirl Media (Therese Steiner and Tumi Mosadi), rising Moroccan hip hop star Soultana, and top Zimbabwean women’s basketball coach Belia Zibowa.

Toni Blackman

Listening to this amazing panel, I recalled last week’s article by Dr. Philip Seib, reflecting on a recent cultural diplomacy conference in the U.K. Seib wrote, “Still needing to be better defined … is the state’s role vis-à-vis the cultural community and the individual artist in the course of these diplomatic ventures.” And in fact our conference was an unusual opportunity to hear vivid descriptions and powerful insights from these artists / experts, right alongside the essential policy overview provided by Ambassador Adam Ereli, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, and a valuable presentation on private sector support for international youth sports outreach from GWU professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti (rounded out by some thoughts of my own on the interrelationship of media and cultural exchange in public diplomacy.)

Amb. Adam Ereli

Meanwhile, all week IPDGC made the most of the DC presence of two of the conference’s international participants. Tumi Mosadi, who coordinates GlobalGirl Media’s project in Soweto, is today joining a field trip of Washington DC high school students to NBC studios as part of the Prime Movers Media journalism training program sponsored by GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA). Yesterday, Ms. Mosadi had the opportunity to shadow SMPA alum Coleen King at MSNBC’s Chris Matthews news program, and she met with SMPA alum Jayne Orenstein at the Washington Post on Wednesday to talk video-journalism.

Tumi Mosadi and Therese Steiner

Also on Wednesday, Tumi and GlobalGirl Media President Therese Steiner screened a powerful GGM documentary film on the impact of HIV/AIDS on young women in Soweto at GWU’s Department of Global Health (School of Public Health), as well as at State Department’s Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator. IPDGC sends a big thank you to all our GWU colleagues for these collaborations.

Soultana at Marrakesh Lounge in Adams Morgan

And IPDGC provided night life as well: Moroccan hip hopper Soultanaperformed her work – including hit single Sawt Nssa (Voice of Women) – to lively audiences at DC venues Marrakesh Lounge and 19th Bar. (Just as a reminder of the power of international exchanges to connect and build, it was Kendra Salois, former U.S. Fulbright Student in Morocco and current Ph.D. candidate at U. Cal Berkeley, who connected the IPDGC team – not normally famed as music impresarios – with the performance organizers.  Our thanks go to Kendra and to Darby Hickey for making the performances possible.)

Is Subversive Diplomacy the Right Path?

After reading Fergus Hanson’s article in Foreign Policy, I have mixed feelings on the State Department’s campaign to use social networking and the Internet as a possible way of “subtly undermining repressive regimes.”  While it is great that social networking is being embraced, I am not sure if this is exactly the way to do it.  This is especially the case when it is being used in countries that we are supposed to have a partnership with.  It seems to me that undermining the regime may be undermining the partnership as well.  On the other hand, social media is a very powerful tool and a way to avoid using force by giving empowerment to a country’s citizens.  It helps build civil society and give like-minded people the tools they need to work towards government change and promote democracy.  It is a very fine line between using social media as empowerment and over-stepping your ground and risking your diplomatic relationship with the country.

Evgeny Morozov believes that Internet freedom will lead to countries imposing more restrictions.

Internet freedom is something that is lauded in our country, but in the regimes that the U.S. is using these new tactics in, this freedom could have very high costs.  An empowered citizen, aided by U.S. Government tools, could be caught and prosecuted or even killed.  While the United States is using the Internet as democracy promotion, it could turn into what Evgeny Morozov concludes: Internet freedom will lead to countries imposing more and more restrictions and thus making citizens worse off.  This is not the goal of the State Department’s efforts and it would be highly unfortunate to see something that is intended to be positive go in the opposite direction.

Projects like the Open Technology Initiative and InTheClear are two very positive initiatives that have some great future possibilities. OTI, by the New America Foundation, allows people to maintain communication when the Internet is under government shut down, and InTheClear allows people to erase data from their phones if necessary.  These projects can help those against a repressive regime in times of crisis and seem to be less tied to country partnerships and possibly makes citizens less vulnerable to attack.

In the end, the direction of the initiative is positive because it takes into account the realities that activists are moving online and that the Internet is a cost-effective mechanism for giving access to those who lack it, but it still raises questions about the legality of it all, the potential for diplomatic consequences, and the true impact it is going to have on citizens and their repressive regimes.

An Attempt to Prevent War: “Israel Loves Iran”

As social media becomes increasingly apparent in the lives of citizens throughout the world, its place in domestic and international political, social, cultural and economic affairs is also expected to become more prominent. There has already been much debate about the role social media played during the Arab Spring, and as various world events unfold in the years to come, social media’s capacity to incite change will undoubtedly continue to be a part of the analysis.

One such event that may act as a future case study is that of “Israel Loves Iran,” a campaign started by Israelis who believe that the “Israeli Iranian conflict has no real ground,” and is based on “nothing.” The group’s Facebook page, which was created less than two weeks ago on March 19, 2012, already has over 46,000 likes on Facebook.

The initiative, “Iranians, We Love You,” has surfaced at a time when the discourse around the two countries is centered on Iran’s nuclear progress and whether a preemptive strike by Israel against Iran is imminent. With Iran’s nuclear program looming and negotiations between various government officials taking place, these citizens have decided to take a visible, public stance opposing violent action and showcasing the need for soft diplomacy. Through this endeavor, Israel Loves Iran is shifting the focus from the respective governments to the Israeli people—the people who love Iran.

The group’s website is largely forum-based; it seeks stories from individuals that convey favorable feelings about Iran and asks for testimonies and stories about “the real Iran.”  Although negative comments sometimes flare up, the discussions are primarily positive in tone. This outlet allows people of different nationalities to convene in a centralized location and find the beauty within each culture. The site also has pages entitled “Iran loves Israel,” “America loves Iran and Israel,” “Germany loves Iran,” and “Jews of the World love Iran,” which each feature testimonies and links to articles, videos, music, religious verses and stories about the mutual love shared by each of these groups.

Dispersed throughout the pages, one can find comments expressing the appreciation for the site’s creation:

“We love Israel too. No war!”
“This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
“Give peace a chance; all we need is love…”

The Israel Loves Iran campaign is a public display of anti-war outcry. The cause behind this movement has the ability to gain vast momentum from the public, but–even with a strong backing–would it have ability to change the course of government action? Does it have the potential to change public perception?

The group’s members certainly hope so. As Ronny Edry, one of the individuals responsible for the “Iranians, We Love You” initiative told PBS Frontline reporter Neri Zilber, “We don’t want war. No matter what the governments are saying, on both sides, we are against it, since we are the ones fighting it…I think it is important that we raise our voices.” Through social media, Israel Loves Iran is trying to avert war and promote a lasting peace between the two nations.

The Public Diplomacy Challenge in Pakistan

Tomorrow, President Obama meets Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. A central topic is likely to be the status of relations between Pakistan and the United States, which have been severely strained in the aftermath of a military operation gone bad along the Afghan-Pakistan border in November. During the operation, due to what military investigators described as mistakes at higher echelons on both sides, U.S. and Pakistani forces exchanged fire. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers were killed, inflaming public opinion in Pakistan, suspending military cooperation and putting its fragile civilian government on the defensive.

The other casualty in the episode was U.S. public diplomacy in Pakistan. Not so long ago, the United States and Pakistan were speaking of a long-term strategic partnership. But after a string of events over the past 15 months, the relationship is in intensive care. Even before the November border incident, two-thirds of Pakistanis viewed the United States as an enemy, not a partner. A pillar of the Obama administration’s regional strategy starting in 2009 was transforming the relationship with Pakistan’s civilian government – and the Pakistani people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the late Special Representative Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, together with U.S. Ambassadors Anne Patterson and Cameron Munter, began a broad and candid conversation with different segments of the Pakistani population that chipped away at years of pent-up frustration and misperception. An aggressive U.S. response to destructive flooding in Pakistan in 2010 helped as well.

But these public diplomacy gains were easily swept aside last year. First, an intelligence operative with diplomatic status killed two Pakistanis on motorbikes (he claimed in self-defense) that led to a protracted standoff over treaty obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Pakistan released him after negotiating compensation for the victims’ families but the public diplomacy damage was severe. Three months later, there was the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a justifiable action from the standpoint of U.S. security, but nonetheless perceived in Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty. And there is Pakistani public frustration with on going drone operations, which the government in Islamabad is more familiar with than it lets on publicly.

When it comes to public diplomacy, this is as difficult as it gets. But does this matter? Well, when it comes to reducing the ongoing threat of violent extremism, there is no country in the world more important than Pakistan. Pakistan’s links to the Taliban, the Mumbai attack and domestic plots involving David Headley, Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi are well chronicled. This is not to indict the entire country – Pakistan has suffered far more casualties from terrorism than the United States. It is to say that the U.S. cannot defeat, dismantle and deter al Qaeda and its affiliates, the reason we are militarily engaged in the region, without building a stable long-term relationship with Pakistan’s government and its people.

This will be a lengthy and difficult process, which can be the starting point for tomorrow’s meeting between the President and Prime Minister. They should begin the recovery by first acknowledging the pervasive mistrust that handicaps the relationship and undeniably contributed to the tragedy in November. Notwithstanding political tensions on both sides, they need to reaffirm that, once Pakistan completes its review, high-level delegations from both countries will reconvene to reach new understandings on cooperation and support. Ultimately, if the United States seeks a partnership with Pakistan, and vice versa, both countries need to be more forthcoming.

Corporate Policy, Social Media and Collective Action

Will Youmans, a PhD student at Michigan, and SuperTweeter Jillian York (@jilliancyour), of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have a new piece in Journal of Communication  titled “Social Media and the Activist Toolkit: User Agreements, Corporate Interests, and the Information Infrastructure of Modern Social Movements.” The article looks at four case studies from the Arab world — Facebook’s response to the “We are all Khaled Said” group, YouTube’s handling of gruesome videos from Syria, anti-atheist internet campaigns in Morocco, and the online activities of the pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army — to show the complex relationship between corporations, regimes, and protest movements.

From the abstract:

The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have been credited in part to the creative use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet the information policies of the firms behind social media can inhibit activists and empower authoritarian regimes. Analysis illustrate how prohibitions on anonymity, community policing practices, campaigns from regime loyalists, and counterinsurgency tactics work against democracy advocates. These problems arise from the design and governance challenges facing large-scale, revenue-seeking social media enterprises.

Youmans, who has conducted several studies of Arab media (especially Al Jazeera), and York, one of the most prominent and insightful writers/researchers on issues of online privacy, are particularly well-positioned to write on this topic. The paper makes some interesting insights into how tech corporations’ fundamental desire to increase revenues and users can make for strange bedfellows with authoritarian regimes interested in squashing protest movements that utilize, and sometimes depend on, social media.

One of the important points they make is that “social media provide the tools for organized dissent yet can also constrain collective action.” This happens, they argue, because the code itself “sets the range of usability,” and company policies and user agreements both enable and constrain users. For instance, Facebook eventually took down the Khaled Said page because it violated their ban on pseudonymous users. Yet in authoritarian regimes protesters often risk their lives by going public.

YouTube is an interesting example of how a social media company is trying to confront some of these issues. YouTube bans graphic and “disgusting” videos, which has created problems when citizens have posted gruesome footage of regime violence during the Arab Awakening (and in Iran before that). Yet these videos are also often the only way, or the most effective way, of documenting these abuses for the wider world and fellow citizens in the given countries.

YouTube responded to this conundrum by allowing the videos — usually — under a corporate policy allowing footage that is “educational, documentary, or scientific” in nature. And they have been responsive to community policing of the videos posted to their site. But sometimes videos still get pulled, and even if they are ultimately allowed back online, it may be too late for them to be effective.

At the end of the day, however, social media companies are still businesses, and must make deals with these regimes to gain access to new markets. China is perhaps the best and most discussed example because of its huge population and repressive internet policies. Companies such as Google and Yahoo! have been willing to compromise on their ideals by censoring delicate topics, and sacrifice user privacy and even security, to appease government officials.

Regimes and their supporters take various approaches to social media-driven protest, ranging from shutting down the internet entirely to engaging in internet-based attacks and counter-propaganda campaigns. Recently, for instance, pro-Chinese government hackers have deluged Twitter conversations with the hashtags #Tibet and #Freetibet with spambots.

As the authors conclude:

Although social media firms made some exceptions for reformers during the Arab Spring, their policies and the architecture of their products will increasingly complicate collective action efforts. Nonetheless, pressures by users have and will continue to force adjustments in design and policy.

International Visitor Exchanges: Short-Term Visits, Long-Term Impact

Roughly three weeks ago, the Huffington Post blog featured an article that highlighted a program given too little attention in the public diplomacy debate—international visitor exchanges. Sparked by the visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to the United States, the article by President and CEO of the Meridian International Center Stuart Holiday highlights the long-term value of these exchanges.

This visit to the United States was not Mr. Xi’s first; he traveled to the United States for the first time in 1985 as a provincial official, where he studied Iowa’s agricultural policies as part of a Chinese delegation. According to the Huffington Post, the vice president’s warm feelings toward the United States were the direct result of his previous visit to the country 27 years ago. Although the visit lasted only a short amount of time, the time was sufficient to create a lasting impression of the United States and its people.

In a time when political tensions run increasingly high, programs such as these allow government officials (and, more broadly, countries) to develop long-term, meaningful relationships.

The State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), launched in 1940, has aimed and continues to aim to “build mutual understanding between the U.S. and other nations through carefully designed short-term visits to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders.”

Over the years, the IVLP has hosted leaders from the public and private sectors as well as 330 current and former Chiefs of State and Heads of Government and thousands of cabinet-level ministers. As stated on the IVLP website, these visits “reflect the International Visitors’ professional interests and support the foreign policy goals of the United States.”

In other words, these international visitor programs are mutually beneficial and can have a significant impact on all parties involved. “Exchanges offer an in-depth experience with a foreign country, its culture, its systems, and most importantly, its people. Exchanges provide a substantive and long-lasting connection.” This instrumental public diplomacy tool allows governments to establish connections with those parties it believes could become vital partners in the future.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, international visitor exchanges will allow us to form substantial connections across the globe, reinforcing those relationships already established and creating the core foundations for new ones.

Hip Hop Diplomacy

Dan Sreebny (@pd_dan) has had a couple of interesting tweets lately about various cultural diplomacy programs by the State Department featuring Hip Hop music and dance. In Egypt, the U.S. Embassy and the Brooklyn Academy of Music teamed up to bring the Rennie Harris Puremovement Dance Company (RHPM) to perform as part of a Middle Eastern tour. In Lebanon, Chen Lo and the Liberation Family performed as part of State’s Rhythm Road program, which sends American bands around the world.You can get a sense of Chen Lo’s group from this concert in Algiers:

These efforts are part of a long tradition of using music as an integral part of U.S. public diplomacy efforts abroad. This blog’s name is an homage to those programs, which in their earliest days featured “Jazz Ambassadors” like Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. A major underlying rational for these programs is that music and other arts are seen as being less overtly political than traditional diplomacy and thus able to bridge gaps created by policy differences between the U.S. and other countries, something USC’s Phil Seib blogged about last week.

Hip Hop is in many ways ideally suited to these programs because of its wide appeal to young people (and some of us older folks) around the world.

That said, as Seib intimates, it’s obviously a bit ridiculous to pretend that art, music very much included, is apolitical. Furthermore, from the earliest days of post-war American public diplomacy the art and artists State has chosen to export through these programs have often been chosen expressly because of their political value. Much has been written, for instance, about the debates in U.S. policy circles about which art to include in the famous American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 (famous for the Kitchen Debate). And even the Jazz Messengers were seen by President Eisenhower and others as helping to counter America’s well-deserved bad reputation regarding race, while at the same time potentially opening up politicized critiques of American hypocrisy.

Hip Hop, of course, is also no stranger to political firestorms, and the best of it — like the best of virtually all artistic genres and mediums — is often overtly political, especially about culture. Whether it’s Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” NWA’s “F*** tha Police,” or Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” (all links very much NSFW) Hip Hop (and Rap) frequently touch on important themes of racism, police brutality, and economic disenfranchisement.

Contrary to the purported apolitical intent of many cultural diplomacy programs involving the arts, I think their value lies precisely in their manifest and latent political content. Sure, State isn’t about to send Nas on a world tour (though that would be awesome on many levels…), but there is still a great value in not being afraid of a musical genre just because it has a negative stereotype among certain circles in the U.S., including many political circles.

Yet these same domestic political issues force the State Department to walk a tightrope with these programs: They can’t promote even remotely controversial artists lest they raise the hackles of members of Congress who control the purse strings for such programs. This is especially difficult for public diplomacy programs because, for many reasons including their long-term effects horizon and measurement issues, it is often difficult to “prove” their worth empirically to legislators looking for reasons to slash budgets. Programs tainted with being “politicized” are especially likely to receive scrutiny.

Yet I’d argue that perhaps the greatest value of the Jazz Messengers was precisely that they sparked conversations about America’s race problem, something many Americans would prefer to ignore, while at the same time celebrating not only American culture generally, but African American culture specifically. In that case, there was also an added benefit of subtly demonstrating American values by opening up such a discussion of race, something that shows, I think, the difference between good public diplomacy and propaganda.

All of this will be front and center, by the way, at next Tuesday’s IPDGC conference “Hip Hop Diplomacy: Connecting Through Culture,” from 2-5 at the State Room at the Elliott School for International Affairs on the GWU campus. RSVP now because seats are limited!

The Troubling Power of the US Military over Foreign Policymaking

In reading about the difficulties confronting American policymakers in Afghanistan, one point struck me as especially troubling. The New York Times reported

“Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

The Times is reporting that the “resistance” of the Pentagon to what many of the president’s civilian advisors are saying creates a dilemma for him.  This quandary arises because open knowledge of Pentagon resistance forces the president to balance his administration’s apparent desire to “hasten” US military withdrawal against his need to maintain support from NATO allies and American citizens—support that would be undermined were the commander in chief to appear to overrule the Pentagon’s “stiff opposition.”  In other words, the military’s willingness to publicize its opposition to civilian policymakers creates pressure to which the president must respond.

"The military’s willingness to publicize its opposition to civilian policymakers creates pressure to which the president must respond."

Is it healthy for a democracy when elected leaders worry about winning the military’s support as much as winning that of the country’s citizens’ or allies’?

Not only does it seem problematic for the military to implicitly threaten open opposition should the president choose a policy the Pentagon dislikes. It’s also worrisome because any seeming “Pentagon” consensus in opposition might be nothing of the sort.  The institutional voice of the Joint Chiefs could largely reflect who won out in bureaucratic maneuvers, turf battles and individual jockeying for career advancement. The Pentagon’s stands do not necessarily reflect rational deliberation or application of neutral technical expertise.

America’s unhappy experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq could yield at least one benefit if they spurred systematic renewal of mechanisms ensuring civilian control of the US military.

Opportunity is Calling – How Mobile Phones Can Increase Entrepreneurship among Women in Developing Countries

“I get more respect now,” she says. “Before people in the village wouldn’t talk to me but they do now.”

~Jamirun Nesa on owning a business (BBC News, October 2002)

Image source: BBC.com

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), especially mobile phones, can have a huge impacton the business opportunities available to women in developing countries by providing access to markets, conserving time, connecting women with other business owners and fostering empowerment.

A common business opportunity is to sell goods that are either grown or handmade; however, many of the poor, especially women, have restricted access to markets because of time constraints, lack of transportation and safety concerns, among other factors. A cell phone easily addresses all of these issues. Without leaving their homes, women can call to check prices, find buyers for their products or place orders.

Additionally, even if women want to start businesses, they are typically responsible for the bulk of household activities and childcare, which is time consuming. In this respect, the efficiency and time saved by using a cell phone is invaluable. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), in partnership with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, recently released a report focusing on how connectivity can create entrepreneurial opportunities for women in India. One of the profiled entrepreneurs, Sunita, runs a silkworm breeding business. She not only uses her cell phone for market access, but also to remotely activate a water pump for her silkworm shed – saving her the 3-4 km walk to turn it on and off.

Another benefit of ICTs which is raised in ICRW’s report is that women can connect with other entrepreneurs. Social norms, distance and time constraints that would usually prevent these groups from forming are eased by cell phone ownership. As a result, many women form self-help groups with other entrepreneurs to establish business connections, stimulate creativity, identify best practices, answer questions and serve as a general support network.

Finally, the phones themselves can become a business.  In places where cell phones or landlines are scarce, individuals who have a mobile can sell minutes – a modern phone booth.  As an example, the Grameen Foundation established a program to give small loans to poor women to start this type of business.

Overall, by allowing women to access markets and making tasks less time-consuming, cell phones lower or eliminate some of the barriers to starting and operating a business. In turn, owning a business leaves many women feeling incredibly empowered. Women entrepreneurs can challenge social norms, gain respect from their family and community, improve their individual confidence and set examples for future generations.

From a policy perspective, programs that focus on increasing women’s access to ICTs are a relatively inexpensive way to address many problems that women entrepreneurs face in the developing world.

On an individual level, you can donate old phones to organizations that reuse or recycle them to provide phones to developing countries.  Some organizations, such as Hope Phones, will even accept broken phones and pay for shipping.

“Interview Before Execution”: Reflecting on Chinese Audiences

It’s not the first time when I see some foreign coverage on China and sigh how the views are distorted. Unlike the stereotype of Chinese who will locate the writer and revenge with martial arts, I’m going to explain why such bias exists and offer my perspective as a Chinese on Interview Before Execution, where criminals sentenced to death are interviewed with questions on their life and crime right before their execution.

Part of this program, however distasteful it might sound, is going on air on the BBC’s This World series today. What’s being discussed on the British media now, is the reason why this program has been popular in China for five years, China’s enormous yet mysterious number of executions, and the possibility of abolishing death penalty in China.

ImageSource: The Daily Mail

First, regarding its popularity, Interview Before Execution is aired in China on a provincial station, Henan TV, instead of the national station CCTV (China’s Central Television Station). Hence, its viewership is limited to Henan province, which is 40 million out of the 100 million Henan residents. My friends in other parts of China and even my parents who are loyal TV viewers, have never watched it. 40% viewership on Saturday evening prime time of a law-related program instead of any soap opera, does show its popularity in Henan, but not as extensive as the Daily Mail depicts.

I searched it on Weibo (the Chinese Version of Twitter) which offers a pool of public opinions, and unsurprisingly found out the emphasis of the Chinese audience to be quite different. Take one of the most famous interview cases – the gay murderer of his mother – as an example, the response on Weibo is very mixed. Most Chinese do like it, because it reveals the tenderness of human heart even among the most notorious criminals, which corresponds to the fundamental Chinese philosophy that “man’s nature at birth is good”. Besides, the regret expressed by the murderer teaches Chinese not to be irrational and not to commit crimes. Such lessons are coherent with the principles of the Chinese media system, which is to educate the public and elevate public taste. And such principles originate from China’s long history of learning from history and stories of the others as a mirror to oneself.

Image

Source: The Daily Mail

There are anecdotes on the Internet that some people retreated from such irrational action as murder after watching this program. This culture apparently is not to the knowledge of or appreciated by most westerners, which is the root why bias is prevalent.  Though many Chinese admire the hostess’s bravery to expose homosexuality, which remains highly controversial and secretive in Chinese society, criticism, however, does exist and centers on the hostess for being merely curious instead of genuinely concerned about homosexuality. I would rather say that the curiosity exhibited by the hostess was more of the representation of the audience instead of herself.

It is questionable that this program really delivers the message that China executes too many people, and whether these people deserve death penalty, but this notion will certainly spread across China as the number of viewers increase. At present, as the judge interviewed by the BBC says:

“Since the death sentence for criminals is itself a violent act, then we should abolish it. However, I don’t think our country is ready yet.”

The BBC reports that though China’s number of execution each year remains a secret, the number has already dropped 50% after all executions had to be reviewed by the Supreme Court since 2007. Apart from these figures, I believe since Interview Before Execution must have been approved from Chinese elite officials in order to be broadcast in China as the first show featuring to-be-executed criminals and China’s controversial death penalty, and for being broadcast abroad as explanation of China’s legal system, this itself is a signal that China is transitioning.

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