China's Dysfunctional Public Relations Barrage
September 1, 2000
By Orville Schell
BERKELEY, Calif. -- As Beijing sees it, the reason China's diplomatic and trade relations with the United States don't always go smoothly starts with unfair American press coverage and hostile politicians in Congress. These forces cause Americans to misunderstand China's efforts to keep "the motherland" unified and stable, the thinking goes. Still believing in the efficacy of political propaganda, the Communist Party hopes to change things with the public relations offensive that is currently bringing high-level visitors to the United States: Li Peng, leader of the parliament, and President Jiang Zemin to meetings at the United Nations and Zhao Qizheng, an information minister, to introduce a touring show of exhibits, lectures and events about China.
Beijing would like to garner some positive press before the Senate votes on normal permanent trade relations with China. But there is a larger ailment that this dose of public relations will not cure, and that is Beijing's anachronistic but stubborn tendency to see China's national progress as obstructed by foreign interference.
After the Opium Wars in the 19th century the West did, in fact, shamelessly prey on China. Anti-foreignism took root and was confirmed by the Japanese occupation in World War II. It was codified during Mao's revolution as Leninist anti-imperialism. In the fever of today's marketplace such revolutionary ideology has been muted, but China's leaders continue almost automatically to export blame for China's less-than-perfect global relations, obscuring two crucial facts: China is no longer being preyed upon, and the means to solve many of its key international problems are actually in the hands of the government itself.
To continue suggesting that "hostile foreign forces" are the problem in hot spots like Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong is a curious abdication of the very sovereign power that Chinese leaders aspire to protect. And externalizing the cause of problems preempts understanding of how Chinese leaders could and should exercise initiative at home on their own.
Old notions of sovereignty are changing, and to gain permanent normal trade status with the United States, coexist successfully in a changed world and win global respect, China needs to look at new ways of relieving tensions. Instead of trooping over to New York to engage in transnational propaganda, its leaders might better serve their country by staying home and seeking ways to reframe its relations, on its own, with both its own constituent parts and the larger world.
Because Chinese economic reform efforts have accomplished so much and because there is now so much to be lost if an international flash point ignites, finding solutions becomes ever more urgent.
Far from losing face, China would gain nothing but world respect and gratitude if, for example, it could see its way to unilaterally renouncing the use of force in the Taiwan Straits and evince more respect for the right of Taiwanese to determine their relationship to the mainland. It would gain similarly if it could grant Tibetans a greater quotient of real autonomy and then encourage the Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa, and if it would permit Hong Kong the political latitude to elect its leaders in a truly democratic manner.
The truth is that most solutions for what internationally bedevils China will not be found in New York because what needs fixing is in Beijing. What China needs is not better global propaganda, but bold new vision and leadership dedicated to recasting the way it imagines itself in the world.
Whether the present leadership is imaginative or strong enough to undertake such a reappraisal is another question. But if talks could be started with the Dalai Lama or the issue of reunification with Taiwan could be deferred until China has become more democratic, China's leaders would have accomplished something to be truly proud of. Moreover, their world stature would soar and they would find that myriad other tensions, around issues like trade arrangements with the United States, would dissolve on their own.
Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and author, most recently, of "Virtual Tibet."