China wants better image, but not at the risk of security

Chinese police patrol the Wangfujing Street shopping areaa in Beijing, China, against protests, February 27, 2011
Chinese police patrol the Wangfujing Street shopping areaa in Beijing, China, against protests, February 27, 2011 Tom Lasseter/MCT

BEIJING — Eighteen pages into his opening address at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on Thursday, Jia Qinglin paused to note the importance of promoting China abroad.

"We will strengthen our external publicity work so that the international community can learn more about our country's political system . . . so that we can win its understanding and support for China," said Jia, who chairs the national committee of the conference, a top political advisory body.

Many in the vast crowd at the Great Hall of the People nodded in agreement, but the past couple weeks have, by any accounting, been a rough patch for Chinese public relations.

A crackdown by Chinese security services after online calls for demonstrations in Beijing and cities across China generated reams of news stories about the push to both detain activists and harass foreign journalists.

Western news channels such as CNN soon aired footage of Chinese security manhandling reporters and shoving TV camera operators. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu responded by telling a news conference this week that for those trying to "create trouble" in China, "no law can protect them."

The string of incidents and Jia's call for better public relations served as a reminder that for Beijing's authoritarian regime, the importance of developing "soft power" — essentially, making China and its culture attractive to the world — is quickly shunted aside when the government perceives a threat to order, no matter how small. Few to no protesters have shown up at the planned demonstrations.

The Chinese government reportedly is planning to spend billions of dollars to expand the global reach of its main state media outlets, giving it the ability to beam pleasing news from China to a wider audience. But it's shown no reluctance to round up dissidents and risk waves of negative news coverage.

It's a trade that officials are very willing to make, said Jin Canrong, deputy dean of international studies at Beijing's Renmin University.

"In this sensitive situation, they will put security first rather than soft power," Jin said. "Sometimes they won't care about the outside image too much."

The dynamic created a disorienting seesaw effect for people interested in following Chinese developments. One moment the government seems to scowl and the very next to smile.

For example, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded last December to Liu Xiaobo, who's currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for helping draft a pro-democracy manifesto, foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang called the prize a "farce" and those who awarded it "clowns."

Just one month later, Beijing rented video screens in New York's Times Square to invite Americans to "Experience China" with a warm introduction to Chinese personalities ranging from astronauts to businessmen to supermodels.

Although most in the U.S. probably didn't know who the people in the video were, it was a clear signal that China is serious about improving its reputation, said David Wolf, chief executive of a Beijing-based marketing-strategy firm. But that goal has its limits.

"Soft power is a nice thing to have, but does it come before economy, stability and a strong defense? Probably not," Wolf said.

He added: "Every country has its own imperatives and at some point says 'Here are our non-negotiables.'"

The editor of the U.S.-based website, which carried recent calls for protests in China, said in an interview that Chinese authorities have themselves to thank for broad international media coverage of the gatherings, whose turnout has so far ranged from tiny to nothing.

The massive deployment of police and detentions of activists fueled suspicions that "the government doesn't have confidence," said Watson Meng.

"I thought the government would respond aggressively, but not so aggressively," said Meng, who recently decided to stop posting the announcements after cyber-attacks disabled his site. "All of these actions make it a much larger story."


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