Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山): When in Rome… – A Few Thoughts on “External Propaganda”

Yan LieshanYan Lieshan (鄢烈山) is a well-established Chinese columnist and author of fifteen books. Born in Hubei province in 1952, he worked as a farmer, an elementary school teacher, and a government official before joining the news sector in 1986. He graduated from the Chinese department of Beijing Normal University in 1982. Yan is now a senior editor at the Nanfang Daily Newspaper Group. His columns in Southern Weekend and other publications have been very popular nationwide. The following column from March 20, 2009, is from his ifeng blog, translated by CDT:

Let’s start with a news story during the annual full session of the National People’s Congress. When asked about the behavior of Chinese tourists on overseas trips, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei said he did not agree that the tourists had “backward habits” that “disgraced” the country. “Yes, it’s always Chinese who gather in big crowds and talk loud in airports and restaurants, but it’s just a habit. We Chinese are not used to the foreigners’ murmuring and whispering at a close distance either,” said Wu. I totally disagree with Vice Minister Wu.

First of all, our ancient sages have taught us to “ask about prohibited things and abide by local customs upon arriving in a new place.” Even though you habitually like to talk loud, you should behave yourself and respect other people’s customs when you are on their turf. It is undoubtedly a sign of frivolity and incivility to be presumptuous and to ignore the presence of others. Secondly, to yell and scream in public is a bad habit that disrespects others and has to be discarded. Once upon a time, China was filled with “supreme directives,” notices and loudspeakers blaring revolutionary songs. It was a “red era” when human rights were neglected. Nowadays the army barracks no longer use bugle calls at sunrise and cars in many cities are prohibited from honking so as not to disturb residents. This marks progress in ideas and old customs have evolved to adapt to new realities. The next step should be removing the annoying TV ads on buses and subway trains. People should be given multiple choices, for example to read or to nap, which they enjoy on planes. Such boisterous activities in restaurants and bars as finger-guessing and other drinking games must be banned. Partygoers can just talk in low voices. When I was visiting a newspaper in Seoul, South Korea, the editorial room with more than 100 people inside was as quiet as a library. People used earphones and microphones when they received phone calls. I feel that was really a civilized atmosphere of mutual respect.

Let’s turn to the Confucius Institutes we opened overseas. We no longer export revolution and have started “exporting culture” instead. Rather than seeing it as “great external propaganda” aimed at demonstrating China’s “soft power,” I think this offers a platform and creates conditions to enhance exchanges between China and the outside world. The fact that the role of French has been supplanted by English indicates that the world is very realistic. When more and more people want to do business with China, the number of foreign students of the Chinese language jumps naturally. Culture is just the hair attached on the fur. Just like any Chinese visiting abroad, the Confucius Institutes as China’s ambassador of friendship have to follow local customs. They can’t demand foreign students be as obedient as Chinese (like Yan Hui, whom Confucius praised for being as obedient as a fool). Foreign students are used to raising questions and engaging in debates with the teachers, not to the cramming teaching style. If you teach them the Chinese saying “Do to others as you would have done to you,” they may challenge you with the melamine-contaminated milk powder scandal. If you mention Confucius’ teachings on credibility, they may wonder why after winning the auction Cai Mingchao refused to pay for the two bronze heads looted by Western invaders from the Summer Palace. They may ask you why so many Chinese would cheer such a contract-breaching act on the Internet. You can tell them that in the past two millennia the Chinese people have actually been Confucian on the surface but legalist underneath. We advocate the rule of morality but carry out the rule of hegemony. Is that ok? We have to first deliberate over such questions and come up with answers.

Last, let’s talk about the 45 billion yuan to be invested on the “great external propaganda” drive (details can be found in the cover story of a recent issue of Phoenix Weekly). We can leave aside the question of whether or not the huge spending has been approved by parliament or after serious study. I believe China indeed needs to improve and strengthen public relations efforts on the international stage to reverse the previous passive practices. But if “external propaganda” does not follow local customs and respect other people’s comfortable ways of receiving information, it is very difficult for it to achieve its goals. Because your audience abroad has many choices, you can’t run a monopoly like you do in CCTV’s case within China. Of course you can distribute free newspapers to people, but what if they ignore the handouts like I do advertising flyers on the street? Chinese American media worker and commentator Ding Guo has a very good point: Westerners mistrust even their own media. It’s a lot harder for them to accept the Chinese government’s “external propaganda”! Veteran diplomat Wu Jianmin also rightly said that European media likes to criticize any institutions with power, or any power holders. If you want European viewers to abandon CNN and watch the TV channel run by Xinhua News Agency, the first thing you need to do is to establish credibility and win trust. In my opinion, if foreigners believe that foreign and Chinese reporters are not free to report the truth in China, our new “great external propaganda” drive will not fare any better than the overseas edition of the People’s Daily and the English-language China Daily. So the priority is to perfect ourselves from within. Comrade Hu Jintao was well-advised to urge the observance of the “way mass communication works.”


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