A Last Chance for Public Diplomacy in China?

In the Hutong
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MIT’s Yasheng Huang notes in Foreign Policy that U.S. diplomacy with China is focused on far too narrow an audience.

But to engage only with official Beijing is no longer enough. It is vital that American leaders learn to communicate more effectively with the Chinese people — lest the conspiracy theorists do the communicating for them.

Dr. Huang echoes a post I made here and in AdAge China two years ago following the election of Barack Obama, calling for a renewed and expanded public diplomacy effort in China:

First, while the government and party remain in control, the means by which decisions are reached is evolving. China is increasingly governed through a process by which consensus is reached among groups and policy makers, or as I like to say “one party, many factions.”

Second, this change has opened a window for groups outside of the government to exert more regular influence on policy making. While China’s leaders and bureaucrats still operate in a system where they are free to ignore public opinion when they forge policy, they are (for a variety of reasons) seeking more input from business leaders, academics, foreign experts, and even the public itself.

Third, this is all taking place in an environment where the role of the web is growing in China, and the permissible scope of discourse is wider than most non-Chinese appreciate.

That Dr. Huang is having to repeat the point makes clear that the Obama administration has lost an opportunity it could have taken from the beginning. That failure is now starting to erode whatever popular support the U.S. had in China, and is postponing the day when that support might be grown.

The hour is not too late, but there is no time to lose. The Chinese people have a growing influence on the conduct of Chinese foreign affairs, and the balance of power in domestic politics is and has always been the key driver of China’s foreign policy. Washington must understand that it is no longer playing to China’s Party elite. It is also playing to the masses, and thus far it has done a poor job.

betsydrager

America’s lack of a “real” or “realistic” China policy has been a problem for a very long time. Our(expats, business people, educators) on-site knowledge may not be paid any mind as was the situation in the 1930’s . Hoping to be wrong about this.

David Wolf

Betsy, I agree. The history of American policy in China is a story of both Congress and the Executive Branch ignoring the on-the-ground situation in favor of taking either an ideological or classical “power politics” approach to relations with the Middle Kingdom. It will change, but it will change only when the bankruptcy of the approach becomes as obvious to people in Chicago is it is to us here in China.

Michael A. Robson

“The Chinese people have a growing influence on the conduct of Chinese foreign affairs, and the balance of power in domestic politics is and has always been the key driver of China’s foreign policy. Washington must understand that it is no longer playing to China’s Party elite. It is also playing to the masses, and thus far it has done a poor job.”

Democracy in China? That’s news to me.

When Beijing talks about ‘meeting with business leaders’… isn’t that just code for ‘partying in VIP rooms and KTVs’?

David Wolf

Michael, knowing full well that “democracy” is a highly fungible term in modern politics, what Professor Huang and I refer to cannot be defined as “rule by the people.”

What has become clear, though, is that popular sentiment (as divined through demonstrations, through the Internet, and through the government’s own internal information resources) has a growing influence on government decision-making, and policy choices, and has become a factor in the inter-factional politics within the Party. That’s a long way from “democracy,” but it is also a very long way from a cossetted elite making policy choices on behalf of a silent, pliant population.

The matter of government-business relations is too huge to tackle in comments. Let’s just say that in that discussion you would need to start by dividing “business” into a more specific taxonomy. The way a government deals with an enterprise depends a lot on what kind of enterprise it is.

Nathan Holdstein

While I certainly agree that the US government needs to pay more attention to the opinion of the masses, I think the bigger problem is that politicians in Washington must, to a certain extent, respond to what their voters believe, and many of the active voter voices have very vivid negative memories of what China used to be. I have always been amazed how many of my own relatives think there is someone sitting in the basement of a government building reading the text I am writing right now word for word…. but just in case one of them is reading, ZHONG GUO JIA YOU!