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Formation of race stereotypes is undermining Chinese effort in Africa


A well-intentioned Chinese Central Television (CCTV) comedy show went horribly wrong last month.  CCTV brings out its best programming during the peak Chinese new year’s holidays, but one comedy sketch this year earned wide international media criticism for its portrayal by a Chinese actress in blackface portraying an African mother with stereotypical curves and mindset.  Her appearance—coming at a time when China is actively building its business and diplomatic presence in Africa—was followed with another “African’ actor with monkey-like features. A single sketch threatens to damage the goodwill China has built up in Africa and has become a tempting target for international critics who claim that China is showing its traditional world view.  The incident reflects two threats that the Chinese government faces as it tries to expand its global influence: its lack of racial education, and its own colonial tendencies.

This is not the first time that the Chinese media have been called out for racism.   Another controversy in 2016 involved an advertisement for a laundry company that stuck an African-American male in a washing machine and made him paler and Asian-looking.  While it is tempting to think that the PRC is deliberately inconsiderate, the closer truth is that the Chinese government—which supervises CCTV, the country’s most influential network—may not even know its flaws because there is no history of understanding racial context.  And without that understanding, its censorship system doesn’t catch race-related mistakes.   Since the Chinese government is focusing right now on its investment in Africa, the government doesn’t want to disrupt relations with the Continent by showing prejudice or discrimination. There’s simply too much at stake for China to have its central message of friendship and partnership distorted by racist stereotypes in its official media.

This kind of misguided humor should be taken seriously. As a society, China has stepped onto the world’s stage through its dramatic growth and prosperity of the last two decades, and its naturally increased global role in trade, politics, and humanitarian issues.   Chinese media are also no longer just domestic.   Maybe a couple of decades ago media could echo parts of society with derogatory terms for Japanese (ri ben gui zi) Koreans (bang zi), or Westerners (bai gui zi). Now the situation has changed as more foreigners starts to follow the activities of the Chinese society and media, but a lot of people in Chinese society have still not realized just how much some jokes and metaphors hurt other people. While many Chinese feel angry when foreign media or people use stereotype to describe Chinese, they don’t connect that with how other races feel when they are portrayed as monkeys.

Perhaps an even more serious problem is the colonialist tendency that has started to form in the Chinese mind. In the controversial sketch I mentioned above, Africans actors praised the railroad that the Chinese government built in Africa and expressed how much Chinese investments helped Africa. There are sentences such as, “When I became a train attendant, I have a different identity. I am so beautiful right now and I am able to marry a nice man. My life will be good from now on!” and “I want to study in China. I want to be like Chinese!” Chinese actors are teachers and travelers, while African actors are just students and servants. If we read the history of colonization of African in 19th century by English and French, we can find a similar theme and propaganda as the Chinese government is promoting now: we bring civilization to Africa and we are their savior. After one hundred years of humiliation by imperial countries, Chinese are becoming like their humiliators after Chinese are able to expend their power.

Du Mu, a Chinese poet in Tang (唐) dynasty, use the story of the rapid collapse of the Qin (秦) dynasty to warn people who do not learn the lesson from history: As the rulers of Qin were too busy  to mourn their own destruction , posterity must mourn for them; but if in mourning the destruction of Qin posterity fails to learn the lesson, then posterity’s posterity will have to mourn for posterity itself. If the Chinese government cannot prevent the formation of an colonist mindset in Chinese people’s own hearts, the Chinese government will not only fail to “rise peacefully” but will also repeat the mistakes of the English and French colonialists.

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.


When Policy Meets Public Diplomacy: U.S. losing its edge in attracting international students

china education fair

Chinese students attend an Education Fair at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to learn more about study abroad programs in the U.S.


U.S. public diplomacy efforts are about attraction, rather than coercion. A major variable in measuring “attractiveness” of the U.S. is through attitudes of potential foreign exchange students. The ability of the U.S. to attract bright minds from around the world has bolstered the country’s development since its inception and fuels the U.S. “melting pot” narrative. China is now the primary source of these foreign exchange students. The recent release of Institute for International Education’s 2016 Report revealed that numbering almost 330,000, Chinese international students comprise 31.5 percent of the total number of international students in the U.S. Sheer volume holds weight, but from a public diplomacy perspective, the numbers are less important than the attitudes behind them. Why do Chinese students choose to study abroad in the U.S.? Will this trend last? Research I conducted in 2015 concludes that unless the U.S. sees major education and public diplomacy policy shifts, we have reason to doubt it will.

In 2015, I completed an in-depth study of the evolution of Chinese students’ motivations to study abroad in the U.S. Its findings highlighted a need for the U.S. to foster policies that attract foreign talent as the web of international politics becomes increasingly multipolar. These conclusions ring true today.

The rapid influx of Chinese exchange students, who make up the majority of foreign students in the U.S., will play an unprecedented role in Sino-U.S. relations, as well as in the U.S. economy as potential future skilled immigrants. Through historical contextualization, observations at U.S. Consulate Guangzhou, as well as primary interviews of study abroad participants from the 80s, 90s, and today, my research concluded:

  • In comparison with students from the 1980s, 1990s, and even early 2000s, today’s Chinese students have a greater freedom of choice and the economic means to take advantage of that freedom of choice. To date, that choice has overwhelmingly been to study abroad in the U.S., but both quantitative and qualitative data suggest that trend is waning as students begin to consider other countries in place of or in addition to the U.S. as study abroad destinations.
  • Though modern-day students make the decision to study abroad out of desire for a better education and personal development, practical factors dictate which study abroad location and program students choose. Factors that may affect a student’s decision include the cost of a program and a country’s immigration policies, which may become even more important in the future as developed countries reach equilibrium in terms of education quality.

The student exchange trends described above call for the U.S. to adjust its education policies to continue attracting foreign talent, a factor that is crucial to the economy’s continuing success. Giving international student policies a more important role is not a betrayal to the “America First” rhetoric on the rise. In a recent interview, Thomas Friedman described his new book as a “manifesto for the eye people”. The “eye people” are those who thrive in the middle of the hubbub of globalization and interconnectedness and draw power from it. The “wall people” are those who withdraw into extreme nationalism. To thrive, the U.S. needs to maintain its status as a hub of global leadership. America’s largest group of international students is beginning to perceive the eye-to-wall shift. When will we?

Click here to read the full study.

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.

Hosting the Olympic Games: A Public Diplomacy Opportunity Like No Other!


Source: NBC

On Saturday, Olympic Committee delegates chose Tokyo (over Istanbul and Madrid) to host the 2020 Summer Olympic games. Meanwhile, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit recently announced that they will spearhead an effort to support Washington as the host of the 2024 games (Washington Post article here).

Competitions to host the Olympic games inevitably generate considerable controversy and criticism about the merits (or lack thereof) of hosting the games.  Most of the debate focuses on the economic costs and benefits involved.

Little attention is paid, however, to listing the intangible benefits of hosting such a major event. Public diplomacy should be high on any such list. Hosting the Olympics is a unique opportunity to attract international attention – not only hundreds of thousands of tourists, but also many millions of television viewers – and to shape a powerful and positive narrative of the host country, city, and its people.  Recent hosts, most notably China, worked hard to capitalize on this very opportunity.

There are obvious risks for the host, of course, including the possibility of a man-made or natural disaster, as well as the potential for groups to use the event to highlight particular political agendas.  Russia, for example, currently faces precisely such a challenge with regard to its record on LGBT issues and the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi. That said, perhaps no other event has quite the same potential for national rebranding and polishing of a country’s image than the feel-good vibes of the peaceful competition, international camaraderie, and mutual understanding epitomized by the Olympic Games.

While the nay-sayers will have their say, I have no doubt that leaders in Japan, Turkey, and Spain all had this in mind as they lobbied for the 2020 games.  Congratulations to Japan (and good luck to Turkey and Spain in their future bids) for securing this incredible public diplomacy opportunity!

Related articles

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.

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.”

March Madness on China’s Social Media: Unveiling the Beijing Conundrum

Wang Lijun

What’s happened in China within the Communist leadership in the past two weeks has been not only a mystery to Westerners, but to most Chinese as well. Wang Lijun, the aide of the flamboyant Chinese politician Bo Xilai seeking political asylum in the US embassy in Chengdu, followed by Bo removed as the party chief in Chongqing (read how the New York Times interprets the link between Bo’s dismissal and China’s political reform here), and the block of the word “Ferrari” in Chinese search engines. Now, not just the West, but also the majority of Chinese are aware of what’s behind such bizarre incidents thanks  to microblogging.

March 8 – rumors on Weibo

It all starts with a whisper on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), that “something big has happened” in the early morning of 8 March, by Mao Shoulong, Dean of the School of Public Management at Renmin University, Beijing. Within hours, his post was forwarded over 2,600 times and attracted almost 1,000 comments.

@LunaZHONGBellFall: I’ve climbed over many layers of wall. Besides yesterday morning’s news of Hu Jintao calling Wang Lijun a traitor, there’s no latest development or confirmation of this news.

@TangGu2010: I’m outside the wall scouting for everyone. The South China Morning Post reports that Hu denounced Wang. What this means for Tomato is hard to say.

You can read more excerpts of Weibo comments here

March 15 – Bo disgraced by Wen

Bo Xilai

Then Bo was officially sacked on March 15,  which drew speculations around the world. The Atlantic even asked “Is there a coup in China now?“. However, the Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine on China run by mainly Westerners who distil stories reflected on China’s social media debunked this rumor. Unlike such bold inquiries by the Western media, the Chinese Weibo users have to invent phrases to discuss this issue in order to get around the tight censorship. For instance, to avoid publishing sensitive words that might be blocked on Weibo, they use “Great Pacifier of the West” (平西王) as Bo’s nickname because of his crackdown on organized crime as Party Secretary of the southwestern city of Chongqing, and tomato (西红柿 xī hóng shì) to refer to Chongqing because tomato sounds the same in Chinese as “western red city” (西红市) (Bo has been famous for evoking Mao’s revolutionary “red” in Chongqing).

You can read some wistful words of Bo from Weibo in English here.

Read China Digital Times, which offers perspectives from Chinese and foreign experts on China’s recent political conundrum. “Bo Xilai: Down, But Out?”

 March 19 – Ferrari crash involving son of top official

The Ferrari crash in the early morning hours of 19 March did not arouse that much attention among most netizens until they woke up to find that the word “Ferrari” was blocked on Weibo. Rumors say that the driver was the illegitimate son of Politburo member Jia Qinglin who is supposed to be in the same league as Bo Xilai.

This series of events somehow linked together has been called the March Madness in China by many media reports. This conundrum is no longer only accessible to those who are able to climb over layers of the “Great Wall” or those outside China, but to the average Chinese Weibo user. 195 million of China’s 1.3 billion population uses Weibo, according to China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC)’s June 2011 report. This huge wave of awareness created by Weibo as the platform of civil society discussion reminds me of the stimulant Twitter during the Arab Spring.  However, put aside the question whether China will have a “Arab Spring”, I can be certain that during this period of leadership transition in China, the fact that citizens are better informed of what’s going on in China’s politics, which were so intangible before, is a good sign for China’s future.

Learn more about the speculations on the Ferrari accident among Chinese netizens and foreign media here and how these discussions led to a number of of banned terms online.

Read the translated Chinese official reportage of the story here.

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.


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.

Learning Public Diplomacy in Europe — China: Still Center of Controversy


In Paris, whenever I’m asked where I am from, I have difficulty in giving a short answer. I am a Chinese national, which is apparent from my Asian face, but I’m also on exchange to a French university from an American graduate school.  For many, however,  the fact that I’m studying public diplomacy (PD) in France, a fancy new subject that is coined by an American is more confusing than my trajectory of school life.

Here I am in Paris, attending a class called “Public diplomacy and international communication”. Unlike in the Elliott School where my classmates were mostly either from Asia or the US, here in my public diplomacy class in Sciences Po (Paris), the classroom is composed of students from all over the world including India, Canada, Columbia, Nigeria, France, Britain, the US, China, etc.

The benefit of a diverse class background is that I can always hear an insider explaining the public diplomacy of his or her country, as well as their views on China. These opinions, which arise in almost every class and form a fierce debate afterwards, however, have shocked me from time to time.

Controversy #1: “PD in a non-democracy never works.”

My first day of the class started with the comment “PD in a non-democracy never works” from an American classmate. I was sitting in the front row, blushed and shocked. I didn’t take it personally, but I was quite disappointed that in later classes, this sentiment was expressed repeatedly among my classmates.

When we covered the practice of nation branding in PD, the Olympics in Beijing was cited as an example. A Canadian classmate then negated China’s Olympics showbiz with reference to China dubbing the voice of the girl who sang a nationally reputed song. I was surprised to realize that for an emerging power like China, whenever it tries hard to prove itself, people in the west will still link its action with the governing ideology. Under such circumstances, they will be most easily impressed with the scandal the smears China’s entire image. Hence, China’s display of its ancient culture is swamped under such mindset.

Controversy #2: China + Syria = China’s failure in PD

Right after China vetoed the UN resolution to request the Syrian president to resign, every time I walked in the 13th quartier in Paris which is full of Arabs, I was afraid I would be kidnapped. This fear converts to the anxiety of being attacked verbally in my PD class. Neither of these happened, but China and Syria was constantly brought up in the class as well as the French media.

Once we had Bernard Kouchner as a guest speaker, who was the former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, who is certainty furious at how “our friend China” has obstructed the French active negotiation to pass the resolution on Syria, and under this comparison, China is easily depicted as the irresponsible, self-interested power. I’m not defending China’s stance here, but I have to point out that the fact that the world lacks knowledge about why China is against international action against Syria IS an example of China’s failure in public diplomacy.

Comics on China and Russia vetoing UN resolution on Syria France 24, the French international news channel. Retrieved on 03/03/2012. 

Though this is quite sad, I have found that people regardless of their nationality have formed their opinions on current affairs based on media coverage. Criticism against China is prevailing in the western media, while China’s voice of defense is usually ignored or given limited coverage. In fact, every non-Chinese I have talked to has a duplicated mindset of what’s on the media, that is, China is letting civilians dying in Syria while holding its vested geopolitical interests. In the United Nations, every country has been acting on behalf of itself, while concerned with the safety of others in the world. Do the western powers like France, which has been trying to reestablish itself internationally and the US have no individual agenda in mind?

I try to explain things in China to my classmates when they express hostile opinions. Their overwhelmingly negative evaluation of China is due to China’s Communist root (usually perceived as contrary to democracy), one-party system, and the lack of a strong, credible international media. As an exchange student studying abroad, I myself is part of the practice of public diplomacy. And at present, I’m enjoying my role that transcends Chinese media such as CCTV (China Central Television) English and the 24-hour English Channel CNC (China Xinhua News Network Corporation) who are perceived to be propagandists among those who have heard of them.

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