FCCC Frankfurt Discussion
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
The Foreign Correspondent's Club of China held an event last Friday that was a sort of retrospective on the Frankfurt Book Fair – lessons learned, insights gained, etc. (details here) The four speakers were Michael Kahn-Ackermann, head of the Goethe-Institute in Beijing; Jo Lusby, General Manager (China) of the Penguin Group; Zhou Wenhan, a freelance writer based in Beijing; and Kristin Kupfer, a German freelance journalist.
The discussion, held in the Sequoia Cafe, was good – highlights (from my point of view) included Michael Kahn-Ackermann's point about the enormous disconnect between the official delegation and the Chinese writers who attended. Essentially that the two groups had entirely separate goals, different methods of presenting themselves, and different styles of communication. Jo Lusby continued this with comments that the government would have to learn how to balance its control over "the message" with allowing those people who actually create culture to do their work. There was also a lively debate/argument over the responsibilities of the western press, with one excitable audience member (a journalist) saying, "When we ask Mo Yan if he's a dissident writer he has to answer!"
Zhou Wenhan, the freelance journalist, wrote his remarks out in Chinese, which were then ably translated and read by Jonathan Rechtman. I was impressed with how succinctly and forcefully he presented some very important ideas about how the Chinese government works, and so rather than regale you with half-remembered anecdotes I will paste below, with permission of both author and translator, the English version of what he said:
Kristin has asked me to talk about the strategic issues surrounding the communication between the German and Chinese organizers in a broader sense, but I'm not part of any government think tank or anything, so I can't really say much about the strategic side of things. I can only speak about some of my observations as to how the Chinese government seeks to manage information in all of its interactions with other countries, whether in terms of cultural exchanges, international conferences, or the Olympics.
My first observation is that Chinese officials generally like to promote singularly positive images of and information about China.
Since the rule of the emperor Qin Shihuang, China has always been a country marked by a strong centralization of power. There has always been a monolithic unification, whether in terms of political institutions or culture and ideology, and this tradition has been further strengthened under Communist rule, not only internally, but also in China's dealings with the world at large. The Chinese government and many Chinese themselves are eager to present a singularly positive image of China.
But the problem is that with advancements in technology and increased channels of communication between China and the world, it's become harder and harder to maintain that singularity.This leads Chinese government officials to strengthen their control over the flow of information and personnel at events like the Olympics or this book fair, which constitutes what is in my opinion an unnecessary and very expensive waste.
For example, this book fair could have been organized mainly by the publishers themselves, with government organizations playing a supporting role. This would have saved a lot of public expenditure, but the Chinese government is accustomed to being in control, and so the General Administration of Press and Publication was tasked with organizing this event, and the entire organizing procedure became unnecessarily complicated and expensive. Also, government officials treat these large events as personal political accomplishments, so we start to see a dual-purpose form in these situations: on the one hand it's about promoting a government-approved image of China for the world to see; and on the other hand it's a pursuit of commercial interests (in this case the trading of publishing rights) which can in turn be counted as a political victory for the GAPP and reported to their superiors.
My second observation is that China has a bureaucratic system in which the higher-ups decide everything, which leads officials to appear rigid and inflexible when dealing with the media.
Please note the two rules of the Chinese bureacracy: Firstly, higher-ups decide everything, including the promotion and advancement of their subordinates, which means that subordinates do everything they can to meet the goals set by their superiors. And secondly, the bottom line for all public relations is to not give the media anything to make a scandal about. I'm sure the bureaucracies in Germany or America have a similar problem, but in China its especially serious. It means that the government official in charge does everything he or she can to control the situation at hand. But often the situation, or information about the situation, is simply too much to control, and so the only thing the official can do is, essentially, "stonewall" or say "no" to the media, making them look rigid and unwilling to engage.
Officials can still keep a tight control over what its subsidiary publishers say in public, either via direct orders or through its control of specific related interests, but in private these people might express a completely different point of view. And, of course, now there's also a lot of extra-governmental channels of communication.
My third observation is that the censorship of the news and the media's appetite for conflict make it almost impossible to hold meaningful dialogues.
The Frankfurt Book Fair featured a lot of controversial topics about China, including writers-in-exile and the issue of Tibet. As a journalist, I don't think that this amounts to a "negative portrayal," because these are real issues that China is confronting. But I also think that the German media's heavy coverage of these controversies was excessive, and oftentimes overshadowed reports on other important aspects of China such as literature and environmental protection. This has a lot to do with how mainstream media appeals to its readers and shapes the news agenda, and I think its something that members of the media need to be aware of and vigilant about.
As for the Chinese public, the biggest problem is that government censorship leaves many people unaware of a lot of important issues and information. For example, a lot of China-related issues were discussed at the book fair, but domestic media in China almost exclusively reported on the export and sale of publishing rights.
Because the information accessible to most Chinese people is so one-sided, there emerges a kind of public single-mindedness. Most people assume that foreigners are always trying to demonize China. In fact, I've found that most communication itself is generally accompanied by some degree of mutual demonization-- I don't know if you have seen the movie Inglourious Basterds with Brad Pitt, which thoroughly demonizes both the Allies and the Nazis.
My fourth point is that Chinese officials' plan to export Chinese values is going to be a very expensive failure.
Recently, in both private and public, many Chinese officials and university professors have talked about how China can export its values, referring to a uniquely Chinese worldview that differs from Western-style systems of democracy. For example, Confucian thinking, or the model of government-dominated economic development, or the "harmonious world" theory. But what's special about China is that while each of the above ideas all have their own advocates, there's not a real common mainstream ideology. The government has put out a lot of propaganda and spent a lot of money to promote Marxist values, but there's still an enormous gap between these ideas and people's actual lives. These values are nothing more than slogans, and not many people (government officials included) actually live according to them.
In civil society, meanwhile, there's no basic consensus between the wide range of Buddhists, liberals, Confucian scholars, left-wing intellectuals and others. The truth is, what's become most popular in China right now is a loosely defined nationalist fervor, which of course can consolidate the population internally but which can never be exported outside of China. What foreigners fear the most is an ideology of radical nationalism carrying China off into an unforeseeable future.
While this variety of different outlooks struggle amongst themselves, the government's strategy of exporting "Chinese values" is left in an awkward position. I think that this talk about exporting values is to a large extent more about China trying to protect itself than about an actual aggressive campaign, that is, it wants to use more foreign-language media to give everyone a look at China's good side, whether in terms of its exquisite traditional culture or its modern prosperity and bright economic prospects. But of course China's model of development certainly isn't perfect – just look at its increasingly serious environmental pollution.
Finally, I'd like to emphasize that to some degree China currently has established an "internal empire." With its enormous population and increasingly powerful economy, China can largely afford to ignore what the outside world says about it. But within this internal empire, one-sided education is leaving people with a very simplified world-view, and the inability to communicate or find common ground between the numerous competing values and ideologies internally could in the end lead to serious social conflict. This is something worth being concerned about.
As to China's communication with the outside world, my only strategic suggestion would be to allow for as much flow of information from as many perspectives as possible. The only truly effective strategy will be more interaction with a range of different types of people, a true plurality of exchange.