Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

China not yet getting its message across

By Alistair M Michie (China Daily) Updated: 2011-10-17 07:59

During the past three decades China has made great advances in public diplomacy and it is emerging as a vital tool for the country. Obvious highlights are the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But the financial crisis in Europe and the United States means there is a need for urgency in boosting China's public diplomacy.

The economic weakness of Europe and the US greatly increases the risk that their populations will take a negative view of China as they struggle with unemployment and economic austerity.

There are plenty of signs such negative views are rising. As an example, a book is being published in the US later this month entitled: Red Alert: How China's Growing Prosperity Threatens the American Way of Life and the BBC is causing a great deal of concern in China with its television coverage about China in Africa. This kind of negative coverage is certain to continue as China reaches more and more into the world.

Should these negative views toward China take a firm grip in Europe and the US then they could create a demand for anti-globalization that could throttle free trade. Such trends could be very dangerous and damaging to China and could halt progress towards a peaceful and sustainable world.

Public diplomacy provides a way of countering these negative trends and can vastly boost the positive understanding of China worldwide.

Presented in the right way Chinese public diplomacy could communicate the hope and confidence needed to lift Europe and the US out of their financial crisis. China has a great story to tell. But polls show the message is not getting across.

Websites now dominate information distribution inside China. That is also the case outside of China. But, it is very difficult to find websites in English about Chinese provinces, cities or major cultural attractions that make an impact oversea. Where there are websites, almost all lack a design that appeals to foreign cultural tastes. Many sites make assumptions about knowledge of Chinese culture that foreigners simply do not possess.

Certainly it is the case that foreign media do not help with building understanding; much of what is happening in China goes unreported and what is reported is often negative. There is a vast opportunity for China to provide much more information in a style designed to appeal to foreign tastes.

If China is to successfully use public diplomacy two issues need to be addressed.

The first is that there is a vast lack of Chinese international communications skills. Maybe this is a reason why Chinese businesses and organizations "Going Out" do not communicate well. With the right training Chinese businesses and organizations could greatly advance Chinese public diplomacy. This lack of skills could be dealt with through strategic investment in training linked to boosting public diplomacy.

The second issue is that China has become greatly dependent on foreign communications groups. Research shows that there are only two Chinese controlled communications companies with any global reach. For Chinese business and organizations following the "Go Out"policies it means they often have no choice but to use foreign controlled communications support.

This means that China is fast becoming dependent on foreign, and especially US communications groups.

In 2011 there is strong evidence that the six major global foreign communications groups are tightening their grip on China by buying control of Chinese communications companies.

It does not make strategic sense for China to depend on foreigners to communicate internationally. China could quickly and easily deal with this by supporting and building up Chinese communications companies. In turn that could rapidly advance Chinese public diplomacy.

Understanding how foreign people think and how the Western media behaves is a critical step in successful public diplomacy. That is why I have long been an admirer of Sun Tzu's vital but simple message: understand how the other side thinks.

The key principle of public diplomacy should be to learn what your target audience knows about you, then devise a strategy to carry their thinking to where you want them to be.

The author is secretary of the 48 Group Club, honorary Associate of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge University and an advisor to NICG and Trends Communications.

(China Daily 10/17/2011 page8)

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