China

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Public Diplomacy On the Way to the Office

An online poll administered by the National Zoo chose Bao Bao as the name for its newest panda cub. Credit: Abby Wood, Smithsonian's National Zoo

An online poll administered by the National Zoo chose Bao Bao as the name for its newest panda cub. Credit: Abby Wood, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

On my relatively short commute the office this morning I came across three separate examples of public diplomacy — each of them conducted by a foreign country with target audiences in the United States.

First, I read a charming op-ed by the Chinese Ambassador in the Washington Post that begins with the line, “Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo…” The opinion piece comes on the occasion of the naming of the panda cub, Bao Bao, as a result of an Internet poll that invited members of the public to vote on their favorite name.  As Ambassador Tiankai describes in his article, China has long used the exchange of pandas not only to symbolize peace and friendship between our countries, but also as the basis for practical scientific collaboration and cooperation.

Next, I listened to an NPR story from over the weekend reporting that the Cuban government has decided to relax restrictions to allow its baseball players to go abroad and accept contracts to play in foreign countries.  Although U.S. laws would still make it illegal for Cuban players to bring any earnings in the U.S. back to Cuba, there is already wide speculation that this may still lead to larger numbers of Cuban baseball players in the Major League.  Baseball has long been a valuable source of soft power and a tool of public diplomacy between the United States and other countries, particularly Japan and Latin America.

Finally, I was greeted upon my arrival to the Foggy Bottom Metro station (the closest metro station to the U.S. Department of State) by a massive advertising campaign funded by the Canadian government.  The campaign emphasizes the strong U.S.-Canada partnership, particularly in the area of energy trade and cooperation, and appears to be directed towards influencing public opinion in advance of the pending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

I was struck by how these examples illustrate the range of public diplomacy themes, tools, audiences, and time horizons.  Public diplomacy draws on themes ranging from national symbols to sports, employs tools from exchanges to ad campaigns, targets individual locales to entire populations, and operates in a time frame from days and weeks to generations.  Although I confess that I am probably more likely to notice examples like these than most people, it was nevertheless no accident that I came across these three distinct examples on one commute.

As we continue to debate the merits of public diplomacy here in the U.S. and appropriate levels of funding, we should take note of the fact that other countries clearly recognize its value and actively use it to advance their national interests.  We would do well to do the same!

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

UNESCO and the US: Politics and Culture at the Water’s Edge

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via ibtimes.com

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via ibtimes.com

Earlier this month, the U.S. lost its voting rights in UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, after failing to pay its dues for the past two years following Palestine’s membership to the General Assembly. The move has been widely regarded by diplomats and experts as “undermining America’s ability to exercise its influence in countries around the globe” as well as UNESCO’s ability to pay the bills: the U.S. contributed approximately 22% of the agency’s $70-million-a-year budget.

More than anything, this is a major blow to U.S. public diplomacy. In addition to losing its say in the world’s preeminent cultural body, the image and soft power of the U.S. have also been diminished. Other consequences we can expect:

1. Delays in approving American historical sites to the World Heritage list. Two sites – one in Louisiana, one in Texas – were currently undergoing review when the deadline passed. Given recent events, their admission can expect delays. In the meantime, the thousand or so jobs that were anticipated with the designation of a World Heritage title remain in limbo.

2. Increased room for China’s growing soft power. In May, Hao Ping, the former Chinese Vice-Minister of Education, was elected president of UNESCO’s general conference, providing an invaluable opportunity for China to expand its own soft power prowess, especially now without the U.S. in the picture.

3. Decline and/or stall in programming. In addition to cultural programs, UNESCO runs hundreds of initiatives in education, science, and communication through field offices in every region in the world. Even with emergency funding, it is obvious these programs will suffer personnel lay-offs and funding cuts.

It is worth noting that the U.S. has always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with UNESCO. In 2002, it rejoined the UN agency after an 18-year hiatus over “a difference in vision.” And in spite of President Obama’s iteration to commit to UNESCO’s goals, the U.S. essentially has its hands tied due to laws enacted in 1994 by Congress that prevent it from contributing funds to any UN organization that recognizes Palestinian statehood.

Whatever the reason, the cultural legacy of the U.S., particularly as a founding member of UNESCO, now hangs in the balance. The last thing it needs after a year of public image disasters (Syria, Edward Snowden, NSA phone tapping, to name a few) is to have politics get in the way of something that was meant to facilitate diplomacy without it.

The U.S. Public Diplomacy Deficit: Look at What We Do

Pakistani protesters burn a representation of a U.S. flag to condemn a drone attack in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan which killed Taliban leader Waliur Rehman, Thursday, May 30, 2013 in Multan, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban's deputy leader was buried hours after he was killed in a U.S. drone strike, Pakistani intelligence officials and militants said Thursday. (AP Photo/M. Abbass)

Pakistani protesters burn a representation of a U.S. flag to condemn a drone attack in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan which killed Taliban leader Waliur Rehman, Thursday, May 30, 2013 in Multan, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban’s deputy leader was buried hours after he was killed in a U.S. drone strike, Pakistani intelligence officials and militants said Thursday. (AP Photo/M. Abbass)

I join my GWU and IPDGC colleague Tara Sonenshine in saluting Donald M. Bishop for a thoughtful speech on the state of U.S. public diplomacy and the challenges it faces. Let me add my two cents to the discussion.

I agree with the bottom line: public diplomacy is not a sufficiently vital dimension of diplomacy, foreign policy and national security. In an increasingly interconnected world of the Internet, global media, personal media and billions of smartphones, it should be, but isn’t. To be truly influential and effective, public diplomacy must be relevant as policy decisions are being made rather than after the fact.

Structure, story and strategy are contributing factors to the U.S. public diplomacy deficit, but what impacts international perceptions of the United States is less who says what, where and how than what we do. This has always been true, but what has changed from the height of the Cold War is the lens through which our actions are judged and the amount of information available to the average global citizen to continually evaluate American leadership.

The United States took on a truly heroic leadership role through what Donald Bishop terms the “long twilight struggle.” Without the United States, the world would have a different character and vastly different expectations about the future.

That said, the United States took a number of actions during the Cold War that were in retrospect unwise, unproductive and perhaps even unlawful. When this occurred, there was controversy, but most of the world granted America the benefit of the doubt because they could see an alternative that they consistently judged to be worse. The Berlin Wall was the universal symbol of this dynamic.

During the Cold War, while there was a compelling story to tell about American freedom, progress and prosperity (although given race riots, assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, there was a gap between perception and reality back then), it was really about them, about the Soviet Union and its violations of emerging international norms.

But since the fall of the wall, the world has changed and this has affected how the United States is viewed now. Actions are no longer about them, but primarily about us. There are competing strategic narratives, but America’s dominates. From our perspective, the narrative may still be the same – we’re the guys in white hats riding to everyone’s rescue – but our analog world is now high definition. The picture is a lot more detailed and nuanced than it once was. Still attractive, but blemishes are more visible.

The United States is seen as falling short of expectations, simultaneously accused as President Obama said at the United Nations as doing too much and too little at the same time. Actions are judged according to the international norms that we promulgated, most of the world has embraced and we are viewed fairly or unfairly as ignoring.

This challenge is far less about public diplomacy than policy.

We preach that other countries have to solve their domestic problems, but recently took the world on a political thrill ride with the global economy stuck in the back seat. This political rancor routinely during the Cold War as well – think Joe McCarthy – but what has changed is the rest of the world now has a front row seat and watched it unfold in real time.

In this environment, there is no way to say, pay no attention to the 536 people wrestling behind the green curtain! No heart, courage or especially brains were apparent. No public diplomacy wizard could put a smiley face on the events of the past 30 days.

The say-do gap exists in the foreign policy realm as well.

We support the United Nations when it serves our interests and ignore it when it doesn’t. We promote the transparent rule of law, but then create a parallel and opaque legal universe at Guantanamo, a prison we promised to close but haven’t. We believe in democracy but then condone a military coup that removes a duly elected (if imperfect) president in Egypt. We criticize China for stealing our military secrets, but argue everyone does it when our hand is discovered in the cookie jar. We say we respect the sovereignty of other countries, but do as we please. We say drone strikes don’t harm civilians even though we know better, or choose not to know. But it doesn’t matter, since drone operations are secret.

All of these policy judgments are tough calls. They may serve our interests, even if they do not always reflect our values. We see these issues in terms of security and stability, while much of the world looks for dignity, justice, opportunity and consistency. They can be explained by politicians, diplomats and lawyers, but not easily advanced through public diplomacy. Absent the overarching frame and context that the Cold War provided, this divide is not easily bridged.

The Russian Proposal and the Public Diplomacy Battle over Syria

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The already fascinating thrust and parry between the United States and Russia over Syria just got even more interesting with the latest Russian proposal calling on Damascus to give up its chemical weapons. This high stakes debate about war and peace unfolding in Washington, Moscow and other capitals around the world has important public diplomacy implications.

President Obama’s decision on August 31 to hit the pause button rather than launch button on military action against Syria reflected American concerns that there was insufficient political legitimacy to offset the lack of a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. There was a UN resolution two years ago when NATO intervened in Libya.

The pursuit of congressional and parliamentary backing was considered partial compensation, but there was an unexpected setback when the British House of Commons defeated a resolution to authorize force in Syria. The Obama administration continues to make its case for action, but getting a resolution authorizing the use of force through a deeply divided Congress is an uphill struggle, particularly in the House of Representatives.

The choice to seek popular and representative approval for military action is a political roll of the dice, but also an interesting civics lesson. The leaders of the world’s most enduring democracies are governing according to the wishes of their people, and subject to meaningful checks and balances by co-equal legislative branches. This assumes that President Obama would follow the lead of Prime Minister David Cameron and abide by the result of the congressional vote (assuming one takes place) that he said he didn’t need, but sought anyway. Meanwhile, a dictator uses all the weapons at his disposal, including chemical weapons, to hold on to power, backed by those who cynically use international law to undermine international norms. The process, slow and messy as it is, puts in sharp relief what is at stake in Syria.

The United States, Britain and France have presented compelling accounts that chemical weapons have been used in the increasingly brutal Syrian civil war. But there is not yet a “smoking gun” that definitively ties the latest chemical attacks that killed more than 1,400 people to the Syrian military or Assad himself. The results of a UN inspection to confirm the crossing of the red line regarding the use of chemical weapons are still pending, although its mandate does not include a judgment regarding who did it.

To many, this smacks of the Iraq debate ten years ago, a public diplomacy nightmare for the United States that will continue to handicap perceptions of American power and influence for years to come.

Mr. Obama has insisted that the unfolding tragedy in Syria represents a challenge for the international community, not just the United States. “I didn’t set a red line,” President Obama said about chemical weapons during remarks in Sweden recently. “The world set a red line.”

But while many countries are critical of the Assad regime, a lot less have openly called for a military strike. And fewer still seem prepared to directly participate. Many Americans are asking themselves, if the United States is considering defending widely accepted norms under the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria is not a signatory), where is the rest of the world? Russia and China have effectively sidelined the United Nations. Many within the Arab League are hedging their bets.

But on the heels of a G-20 summit that featured open competition between Putin and Obama over international expressions of support for their colliding strategies on Syria, Putin has played a hole card that potentially takes the initiative away from Obama and shifts the debate from military back to political action.

While on the surface it appears to wrong-foot the president, it puts the onus on Putin to actually deliver. If Syria balks, it actually strengthens Obama’s argument for military action.

Obama should hit the pause button again, request that Congress suspend its consideration of a war resolution, move the debate back to the UN and see if Russia and China are prepared to give the international community a more meaningful role in the Syrian conflict. A UN resolution should authorize an intrusive international inspection regime to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons, since destroying its existing stockpile will take many years.

War-weary publics have expressed their fears that Syria would become another Iraq, circa 2003. Accepting the Russian offer, and then codifying and verifying it, would place UN inspectors on the ground who would work to at least take chemical weapons out of the deadly equation of the Syrian civil war. This would turn Syria into another Iraq, but circa 1991.

There are public diplomacy risks and costs to this course as well, but far fewer than starting another perceived American war in the Middle East.

A Comprehensive Public Diplomacy Strategy for Myanmar

In the past year, Myanmar has been hailed internationally for taking unprecedented steps towards democracy, but what it hopes to gain from democratization–increased investments, development aid, diplomatic relations, and national security–will only be fully realized if the Myanmar government incorporates public diplomacy as a central part of its transition strategy. Specifically, Myanmar officials should focus on creating a globally recognized national brand for Myanmar that is synonymous with ‘emerging democracy’, enhancing Myanmar’s regional role, and increasing English education by participating in English language programs.

Myanmar’s most pressing foreign policy goal is to convince Western nations to lift financial and travel sanctions, because they prevent the country from taking advantage of its plentiful natural resources, including offshore oil and gas deposits. The U.S. maintains that it will only remove all sanctions when it feels that Myanmar has demonstrated a serious commitment to democracy. To do this, Myanmar officials should brand the country as an emerging democracy through establishing one name by popular referendum, promoting the emerging term ‘Myanmar Model’ to describe the unique type of top-down democratization, and embracing Aung San Suu Kyi as the international face of democracy in Myanmar. To Western countries, Suu Kyi’s participation in Myanmar political life certifies and legitimizes it. President Thein Sein and his government must continue public dialogue with Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The government should not be held captive by the NLD; rather, it is important that Suu Kyi feels included in the political process because Western policymakers look at her and the NLD to determine the success of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.


Myanmar should also use public diplomacy to demonstrate its strong investment climate, in order to attract foreign investors when sanctions have been lifted. Myanmar can position itself as a more prominent member of the regional and global community by hosting regional summits for organizations in which Myanmar is a member, giving officials the opportunity to set the touristic agenda for visiting diplomats and bureaucrats. Myanmar was recently named the 2014 host country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and can use this opportunity to introduce the newly democratic country. Myanmar can also increase its desirability as an Western investment destination by participating in English language programs and scholarships such as the U.S. State Department’s English Access program, Fulbright Scholarship, and the British Council’s English Language program.

In the past year, Myanmar has sought to limit Chinese influence in its economy, and strong public diplomacy that results in Western investment will diversify Myanmar’s financial partners and improve its national security. This is a critical time to be practicing public diplomacy with Western countries–especially the U.S.– because many are beginning to shift their foreign policy focus towards containing China and gaining a foothold in the South China Sea, where Myanmar is located. Public diplomacy should be a central aspect, rather than an afterthought, of Myanmar’s transition strategy in order to tell the country’s remarkable story on its own terms.

Claire Ashcraft is a senior at George Washington University where she studies International Affairs with a Middle East concentration. She also studied Middle East politics and Arabic, and interned at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, at the American University of Beirut. This summer she is interning at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar.

Actions in Beijing Speak Volumes

In March of last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (my former boss), in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, feared we were “losing an information war” to the Chinese, Russians and al Jazeera. She was certainly right that the United States faces greater competition from other nations, non-governmental entities and social actors who were aggressively challenging the U.S. narrative of global events and advancing alternative frames. Despite being the world’s only superpower – which means the United States has an interest in every corner of the world but also that every global citizen has an opinion on U.S. policy – our relative advantage had certainly diminished since the end of the Cold War. On balance, the rise of emerging powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran and South Africa is positive, offering opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. But these countries will challenge U.S. leadership as well.

However, we are not losing this information war. Events of the past week reinforce why, as the United States clearly and compellingly defended universal standards of human rights in the case of Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had escaped house arrest and found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. China, an emerging power and strategic competitor, suffered a serious loss in global perception.

People have come to admire China as they see its extraordinary economic performance and learn more about China through its Confucius Centers and media like Xinhua. They marveled at the Beijing Olympics. But they have also been exposed to the other side of China, a rising but insecure power that is afraid of its own people and routinely and too often ruthlessly violates universal rights including freedom of expression, assembly and the press.

Chen Guangcheng wanted to do something revolutionary. As an activist, he wanted to remain in China, to be free of government intimidation; study what and where he wanted; and continue to challenge government policies in an open and civil society. The United States advocated on his behalf, not just through our diplomats in Beijing but also thanks to technology with his dramatic participation in a (staged and shrill but nonetheless effective) Congressional hearing. When that negotiated arrangement with the Chinese government collapsed, the United States rapidly opened the door for Chen to travel and study in the United States. The Chinese government reluctantly agreed if only to move the issue off the global stage.

In the Middle East, while surviving autocrats take comfort in the transactional “ask no questions” nature of Chinese foreign policy, as Professor Marc Lynch at GW’s Elliott School describes in his new book Arab Uprising, an increasingly expanded and empowered public sphere is acutely aware of regional developments and what major players are or are not doing. The United States will be challenged even as it has thrown its rhetoric and actions (Bahrain and Palestine notable exceptions) behind change, most recently regarding Syria. Going forward, U.S. policies will face increasingly strong head winds. It will be challenged to back its rhetoric with appropriate actions that reflect values, not just interests. Not everyone will be happy with the U.S. posture on a particular issue of importance, but it is now China and Russia (which has its own problems with protests) that are the status quo powers, providing political cover for the Assad regime.

There is more than one side of history. In world events, it sometimes takes time to determine which is side is “right.” The United States does not have the influence in the world it once did – that world no longer exists – but it is better positioned and competing more effectively than may be realized. Actions ultimately do speak louder than words. What the United States did last week in defending the universal rights of Chen Guangcheng spoke volumes.

 

 

 

 

China, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, the Arab world, and the Vatican: New Books on Public Diplomacy Span the Globe.

New books on Public Diplomacy, December 2011 through April 2012

Take Five readers:  Let us know if you like this resource, and we’ll make it a quarterly feature.

1) At the 2012 London Book Fair. Professor Zhao Qizheng is launching his two new books in English. They are Cross-Border Dialogue: the Wisdom of Public Diplomacy, published by the New World Press, and How China Communicates: Public Diplomacy in a Global Age, published by the Foreign Language Press (together constituting an English version of his Chinese book entitled Public Diplomacy and Cross-Cultural Communication, published by Remin University Press, 2011).  Zhao says, “I’m trying to present a picture of the real situation in China, to reduce misunderstanding and eliminate the foreign reader’s sense of unfamiliarity with the country.”

2)  The People’s Peace Process in Northern Ireland,  by Colin Irwin (April 2, 2012) — From the book jacket:  ‘I recommend this book to all those involved with peace making and peace building, political negotiations and public opinion polls, as well as those with a particular interest in Northern Ireland. … I am persuaded that the unique approach [Irwin] developed of running public opinion polls in co-operation with party negotiators contributed significantly to the successful outcome of our efforts. - Senator George J. Mitchell.

3) Cyberspaces and Global Affairs by Sean S. Costigan and Jake Perry (Jan 1, 2012). Note Part II: Web 2.0 and public diplomacy includes the following articles:  - Call for power? Mobile phones as facilitators of political activism;  - ICT infrastructure in two Asian giants: a comparative analysis of China and India;  - Information (without) revolution? Ethnography and the study of new media-enabled change in the Middle East;  - The political history of the internet: a theoretical approach to the implications for US power;  - US identity, security, and governance of the internet;  - Information and communications technologies and power;  - Social media and Iran’s post-election crisis;  - Viewpoint: combating censorship should be a foreign policy goal;  - Viewpoint: an alternative prospect on cyber anarchy for policy-makers.  About the editors: Sean S. Costigan directs MIT CogNet and teaches information technology at The New School, and Jake Perry is an independent scholar.

3) National Relations: Public Diplomacy, National Identity and the Swedish Institute 1945-1970 by Nikolas Glover (Jan 1, 2012).    Says the author:  “My study focuses on the Swedish Institute for Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries, 1945–1970. … It postulates that identifying with and promoting a particular national identity in the post-war world has been a question of relating the nation to others …  The concept of national relations leads me to engage with historical research on public diplomacy, the history of communication and the history of nationalism.”

4) Diaspora Diplomacy: Philippine Migration and its Soft Power Influences by Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III (Dec 27, 2011).   The author talks about “the remarkable and untapped soft power that international migrants possess and how various actors—from governments, NGOs, business, the church, and international organizations—could tap this valuable resource to enhance global cooperation, development, and understanding. With detailed and intimate illustrations from the experiences of the Philippine diaspora in San Francisco, London, Dubai, Dhaka, and Singapore…”

New paperback editions:

5) The New Arab Media: Technology, Image and Perception by Mahjoob Zweiri and Emma C. Murphy (Mar 29, 2012; hardcover published January 2011).   ISBS says “topics examined include: the impact of Al-Jazeera * implementation of the internet in the region * the use of the media for diplomacy and propaganda * image culture * the use of the internet by religious diasporas * information and communication technologies and the Arab Public Sphere * the influence of satellite television on Arab public opinion * the explosion of local radio stations in Jordan.” .

6) Kosovo’s Diplomacy: How can Public Diplomacy have an impact on Kosovo’s political and diplomatic position? by Alban Dermaku (Jan 23, 2012; hardcover published January 2011.)  Book flap text:  “The declaration of independence marked a new era for Kosovo and its relations with the countries that have recognized its independence. Since then Kosovo is striving in its diplomatic efforts to achieve broader international recognition and become a member of the United Nations. … In modern times, public diplomacy is receiving broad recognition as a crucial element for understanding and influencing foreign publics.”

Postgraduate Theses from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, new on Kindle eBook: 

7) Prioritizing Efforts to Improve Foreign Public Opinion of America: Applying a Business Model to Discover and Create Customer Value by Anthony J. Sampson - Kindle eBook (published Apr 12, 2012; thesis written in 2007 for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA).  Author’s note: “Given the reality of fiscal and resource constraints, America could not possibly address all of the concerns of the foreign public; rather, America must focus its efforts on the factors that are likely to make the greatest impact. This study identifies negative factors that interfere with favorable foreign pubic opinion and suggests an analytic framework for prioritizing those factors.

8) The Holy See and the Middle East: The Public Diplomacy of Pope John Paul II by Ronald Patrick Stake – Kindle eBook (published March 31,2012; thesis written in 2006 for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA).  Author’s note:  “This thesis considers changes in the diplomacy of the Holy See with respect to the Middle East … between 1990 and 2003. Policies … involved (1) establishing full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel; (2) convening the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Lebanon, ending in the papal visit to Lebanon in May 1997; and (3) opposing the 1991 and 2003 U.S. led wars against Iraq. …{T}he thesis argues that new circumstances occasioned a rethinking of the Holy See’s interests in light of the development of modern Catholic social teaching.”

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.

“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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