The hubbub around the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House has died down, as it always does, but a clear fact remains: most Americans think Tibet should be independent, and many Chinese don’t. And while it’s an oversimplification of an extremely complex issue to say that the vast divide between Western and Chinese perspectives on Tibet is due to China’s poor PR practices, their PR ineptitude on the Tibet issue has certainly played a part.
The fact is, the Dalai Lama has been running laps around the PRC’s public relations efforts for years. Perhaps having spent more time around Westerners than most of the people in China’s foreign relations department, he understands that having an English Twitter account is more effective than a domestic, Chinese-language press release when it comes to influencing Western minds. He visits the US frequently, speaking widely each time, and appearing on popular television programs to give candid interviews. In his most recent visit, he appeared on Larry King Live. He certainly gets more press time than Hu Jintao or other Chinese heads of state do when they visit the US.
Contrary to the popular narrative among Chinese nationalists, this isn’t only because of the Western media’s apparent bias against the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama generally speaks in public, while Hu Jintao tends to meet with people in private. The Dalai Lama gives interviews with newspapers, television shows, and magazines; in contrast, while Hu Jintao does speak publicly, he has certainly never agreed to speak candidly on Larry King or other similarly popular news programs.
As I see it, there are two main problems with China’s PR efforts on the “Tibet issue”, and on controversial issues on which they differ with that vast and strange country known domestically as “The West”. The first problem is that the Chinese government repeatedly fails to engage with the Western public in the kinds of forums Westerners actually populate; the second is that the Chinese government’s discourse is often too vague or too black-and-white to come off as believable to a Western audience when they are exposed to it.
The first problem is decidedly more urgent. Many Chinese feel they are doing enough: the Ministry of Foreign Relations writes press releases, the government spreads Confucius Institutes through foreign countries to promote Chinese language and culture, and CCTV already runs an English-language channel dedicated to spreading Chinese culture internationally. But Westerners, by and large, do not care about press releases, they haven’t heard of Confucius Institutes, and they certainly don’t watch CCTV, which is generally only available outside China by special subscription. If they really want to get their story out, the Chinese government must shift its efforts to forums that Westerners actually populate. Giving frequent interviews to major newspapers and cable news stations would be a start, setting up English blogs and Twitter accounts would be an even better step to show that the Chinese government is committed to engaging with real people to get their perspective out there.
The second issue, of course, is that for the Chinese to engage in these forums effectively, they’re going to need to loosen up a bit if they want to come off as believable and capture a Western audience that, in the beginning, will be mostly hostile. This means candid interviews and directly addressing issues that may be somewhat embarrassing. They will have to admit that there is unrest in Tibet, and that some of it comes from Tibetans displeasure with CCP policies. They will have to directly address and counter accusations of genocide, both literal and cultural, with empirical evidence rather than dogmatic rhetoric. Discussing these topics will be uncomfortable, but a positive outcome is certainly possible. Whether the potential benefits (increased international support, etc.) outweigh the risks and costs of such a PR endeavor is another question entirely.
Another approach, one that is perhaps subtler and more likely to succeed, would be to use China’s soft power ambassadors to spread domestic political perspectives. The problem with that, of course, is that no one really agrees on who these soft power ambassadors really are. The government has been pushing Confucius, but he can’t exactly appear on a talk show, and China’s most famous cultural exports (Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi) probably aren’t ready for political prime time. Who, then, can compete with the spiritual aura and charisma of one of the world’s most respected (though least understood) religious leaders? There is no clear representative, no face that Westerners can associate with China and empathize with. At the end of the day, that may be China’s biggest problem. Hu Jintao can’t possibly compete with the Dalai Lama from inside the walls of Zhongnanhai, and he hasn’t been particularly willing to step out.
Of course, whether China even needs to care about what foreigners think of Tibet is debatable. The government may be content to ignore foreign protestations so long as its sovereignty isn’t threatened and internal affairs aren’t compromised by external forces. But as the world gets smaller, running a country free of external interference is going to get harder and harder. China might do well to expend some effort ensuring that its government has some supporters outside its borders.