The Ugly Chinese

On his blog for the Washington Post, former Post Beijing Bureau Chief John Pomfret writes about the failures of China’s “soft power” efforts as the government propaganda machine changes tack:

For a few years there, the tone adopted by spokespeople of China’s government was downright suave. Background briefings. Check. A quiet drink with journalists. Check. Even a bowling event without a government minder. Check. But these days, it seems like someone has disinterred Cultural Revolution propagandist and Gang of Four member Zhang Chunqiao and put him at the helm.

After the March riots in Tibet, the Tibetan government proclaimed a “people’s war” against “splittism” (somebody should really tell them to lose that word) and the party boss there called the Dalai Lama “a jackal clothed in a monk’s robes, and a vicious devil who is a beast in human form.” A few days later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “disgusting.” And the amazing thing was the Chinese expected to be taken seriously.

Finally, there’s China’s “ship of shame” – packed with arms for the government of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe – on its own troubled journey to first South Africa and now Angola. In both places, dock workers refused to unload the weapons. It’s a coincidence but also a bad one because China has been focusing a lot of diplomatic capital on improving its ties to Africa and the rest of the Third World.

What does this all mean for China? To me, it means the end of an era of China’s “soft power.”

In the International Herald Tribune
, Howard French also writes about government propaganda efforts in the face of angry protests against Western media coverage and foreign support for Tibet:

Earlier this month, an editor from a Beijing newspaper told The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, of a notice circulated by the Chinese Communist Party calling for an “unprecedented, ferocious media war against the biased Western press.”

Another editor, who confirmed the directive, said in an interview this week: The Cafferty incident “is being used to demonize the Western media, reducing their credibility here. It’s a good opportunity for the official media and for the Communist Party.”

As “wars” go, this is one that relies on a particular asymmetry that depends upon keeping people here in the dark about all sorts of details. The public asks “why is the West brandishing Tibet to demonstrate against us” because it genuinely has little information about events, whether recent or more distant in that part of their country, save for a carefully pruned and officially sanctioned story line. While the Western media are accused of bias for supposedly giving short shrift to violence committed by rioting Tibetans in Lhasa on March 14, there is no mention in the Chinese media, not even at the level of allegations, of the deaths of numerous Tibetans in the ensuing crackdown. Tibet, meanwhile, has been closed to outsiders, enhancing the asymmetry.

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