China's story: putting the PR into the PRC

About the author
James A Millward is professor of history at Georgetown University. Among his books is Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (C Hurst, 2007)

The tragicomic Olympic-torch tour presents the world with a serious problem. While the west has focused on the chaotic and even amusing aspects (French police on roller-blades, Chinese torch-guards in dark shades on a cloudy day), in China the iconic image is of the young female paralympic fencer Jin Jing struggling to hold the torch from her wheelchair while a grimacing free-Tibet protestor attempts to wrest it from her grasp. As with the Tibetan protests generally, people in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the world at large see the events of the torch tour in radically different ways.

James A Millward is professor of history at Georgetown University. Among his books is Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang
(C Hurst, 2007)
A similar disconnect characterises recent Chinese announcements of foiled terrorist plots by Uyghurs, the Turkic Muslims from China's Xinjiang region. Several official reports - regarding a raid on an alleged terror cell in Urumqi in January 2008, an attempt by a young Uyghur woman and a man to bring down an airliner in March, and Uighur plans to attack tourist hotels and kidnap foreign journalists in April - have all met with scepticism by foreign media and analysts, infuriating Chinese authorities.

Despite unprecedented information interchange, despite more than two decades of Chinese openness to and deep economic integration with the world, and despite the promise of the Olympic moment, there is now a situation in which world public opinion, and that in China, are diametrically opposed. To oversimplify just a bit, the world public views the Chinese as ogres bent on crushing Tibetans, Uyghurs, Darfurians, Christians and others. The Chinese public thinks the world is out to get them, and that the west just wants to keep China down.

Chinese censorship and propaganda - starting with the history and civics Chinese children study in school - has a lot to do with Chinese popular attitudes, and arguably the opinion gap would be narrower if information flowed more freely in China. But people outside China are likewise generally poorly-educated about Chinese issues, albeit for different reasons, and their responses to events such as the Tibet demonstrations are similarly shaped by misinformation and emotion.

It does no one any good if China and the rest of the world are separated by this chasm of mutual misunderstanding, the effects of which could linger well after the Olympics are over. It avails little simply to enjoin the Chinese government to tear down its information firewall or teach Chinese schoolchildren a fuller version of Chinese history. Like most criticism at this juncture, this will only seem like piling on the anti-China attacks.

Oddly enough, however, much could be gained if China only learned how to do a better job talking to outsiders about China. China has a plausible rationale for its actions, and need neither look like a bully nor feel beleaguered. But when it comes to public relations, the Chinese authorities - and some increasingly angry Chinese students studying abroad - are their own worst enemy.

On message

Here, then, are six suggestions for how China could better represent itself internationally. The benefit of adopting them (in advance of any advice from aside from any new public-relations advisers the Beijing government may hire) would be to reduce misconceptions and tension all around.

Remember that what you say to a Chinese audience is heard by the world audience

Until recently, Chinese authorities viewed even local Chinese newspapers as "internal circulation" media which a billion-plus Chinese, but not foreigners, were allowed to read. Those days are over. Since broadcasts, newspapers and everything else are now online, and lots of foreigners understand Chinese, Chinese domestic news gets out. Even stories that are squelched in China get out. It is a cliché, but true, that we live in one media universe.

Consider how your statements sound in English

Diatribes by hardline leaders may be aimed to satisfy a domestic Chinese audience, but such rhetoric sounds violent, even hysterical, when translated and broadcast in English. Zhang Qingli, first party secretary in Tibet, infamously called the Dalai Lama a "terrorist"; Xinjiang's first secretary Wang Lequan shouted at a press conference on 9 March 2008 that "those terrorists, saboteurs and secessionists are to be battered resolutely, no matter who they are!" It would have worked better if he simply said "stopped," or "apprehended": words like "battered" or "crushed" merely contribute to the impression that the Chinese government is inherently violent. (True, President Bush often sounds the same way, with his cowboy swagger - but here I rest my case. His world image is nothing to emulate.)

Also, be aware that many Chinese slogans sound quaint, or worse, in English. "The Three Evil Forces" is one example, "the Dalai Lama Clique," another. And don't call it "splittism"! That word, probably originating in a poor translation, is used only in the Chinese context, mainly by the Chinese government's English-language media. "Separatism" means the same thing, but is the term used when similar situations plague other nations.

Don't employ ancient or strained historical arguments about territorial questions

What the PRC is most concerned about regarding Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan is sovereignty. However, no government in the world today, and none of any consequence ever, has challenged PRC sovereignty in Tibet or Xinjiang. Even the main exile Tibetan and Uyghur groups have dropped their calls for independent states, focusing now on "autonomy" and cultural preservation. With regard to Taiwan, the world has patiently followed the "one China" line and awaits resolution of the problem by people on both sides of the straits.

There is simply no need to justify policies in Tibet with the information that a medieval Tibetan king married a Chinese princess. People in the Americas, certainly, don't care about things that happened that long ago, and most people outside China see the princess argument as frankly silly. The British royal family is of German ancestry, but does that mean Berlin owns London? And there will always be a historian to point out that after welcoming the Chinese princess in the 7th century, the Tibetans went on to sack the Chinese capital in the 8th: thus royal marriage hardly proves Tibetan subjection to China.

Likewise, to argue that the Mongols, who conquered both China and Tibet, were really Chinese, so that Mongol rule over Tibet in the 13th century was actually Chinese rule, is a convoluted and easily challenged argument. The same is true for claims that Xinjiang has been part of China since antiquity, claims that ignore the thousand-year gap (from the 8th to the 18th century) when there was no Chinese presence whatsoever in the area (see Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang [C Hurst, 2007]).

Do consider more recent and more realistic historical precedents

The Qing dynasty, on the other hand, especially in the 18th century, provides precedents and models that could be useful, both for public relations and for the actual resolution of separatist problems. The Qing was an era when Beijing either governed or enjoyed some sort of security oversight in Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Taiwan as well as in the core provinces of China. Very different administrative systems applied to different places, however, and the empire was characterised by a remarkable tolerance for linguistic, cultural and religious diversity.

Also in openDemocracy on Tibetan protests and China's response:

Ugen, "Tibet's postal protest"
(4 November 2005)

Jamyang Norbu, "Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities" (13 June 2005)

openDemocracy
/ Tenzin Tzundue, "Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown"
(15 August 2006)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq"
(27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet"
(28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power"
(28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens"
(7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report"
(8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy
, "Chinese intellectuals and Tibet: a letter" (15 April 2008)

In the 1950s, too, the People's Republic of China launched a system that in principle, if not in practice, provided autonomy and cultural preservation for non-Han minorities. Today, amidst so much talk of transnationalism and the search for new models to complement the nation-state system, there is a global need for new approaches to the ideological and political challenges posed by multi-ethnic states. China could well look "back to the future" and with historical honesty and genuine national pride draw upon Qing dynasty or even early PRC precedents to craft creative solutions to questions of autonomy and cultural preservation in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. Why not help fix the problems of the western-inspired nation-state with Chinese-inspired ideas? Workable Chinese models might even be adopted by other countries.

Don't deny that China has problems; instead, see how they resemble those of other countries

Though China is unique in its scale, what country does not have problems with pollution, corruption or managing the balance between economic growth and welfare for the poorest members of society? Even the disputes with Tibetans and Uyghurs, while stemming from Chinese historical circumstances, have parallels elsewhere. Ethno-religious diversity poses challenges in Europe, America, Australia, and other western democracies. India has serious separatist problems, likewise stemming from an imperial legacy. But despite some heavy-handed tactics, India does not suffer the kind of international criticism over its approaches to Assam or even Kashmir that China does over Tibet or Xinjiang. One reason for that difference is Indian openness and the wide-ranging discussion of these issues in its own lively press.

In late March 2008, hundreds of Muslim Uyghur women in the city of Khotan in Xinjiang took to the streets; in part, it seems, because of restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in government offices. Chinese media have not reported on this, but news got out anyway, as it will. If you think it is a good policy to restrict the wearing of headscarves in secular public settings, you are not alone: both Turkey and France have similar policies. So why hide the story? Why not join the global discussion over the place of religious symbols in a multicultural, but officially secular, state? Frank admission and thoughtful consideration of such issues would position China beside other large nations, rather than setting China apart, on its own against the world.

Let reporters report: transparency engenders credibility

Though you may be able to control the message to an extent within China, internationally you suffer from a lack of credibility as a result of censored and propagandistic news. This is why western media are sceptical about claims of the Uyghur terrorist threat, or claims that all Tibetans, except for a small handful stirred up by the Dalai Lama, are happy. Covering up the Sars outbreak was a serious blow to China's public relations worldwide - much worse than the fact of the outbreak itself was.

On the other hand, China's relatively open and cooperative responses to safety problems in exported toys, medicines and other products have helped limit the damage to the Chinese "brand" following these revelations. Believing your own propaganda may worsen your problems: it certainly seems that central Chinese authorities had no idea of the depth and scope of Tibetan discontent before it erupted in March.

On the other hand, China's relatively open and cooperative responses to safety problems in exported toys, medicines and other products have helped limit the damage to the Chinese "brand" following these revelations. Propaganda and message-control thus can provide a certain short-term benefit; but the truth will out, and real knowledge affords real power. So if you listen to, rather than excluding and demonising, journalists and scholars, both domestic and foreign, China will be better off and will enjoy greater respect from the world at large.

Be cool, Beijing

All these six points can be summed up more succinctly:

Be confident and honest, not defensive and secretive

The outright denials of the obvious, the virulent rhetoric, the strained historical arguments, the paranoid claims that foreigners cause your problems - all make China look bad. And China does not need to look bad. Moreover, the world needs China not to look bad. China has a great deal to be proud and confident of, with an unprecedented record of poverty alleviation, phenomenal economic growth, glittering new architecture, high-levels of education, a space programme, trillions in foreign reserves, a savings rate that is the envy of spendthrift Americans, and what is likely to be a rich harvest of Olympic gold - not to mention a long history and glorious culture.

Sure, China has problems - who doesn't? But no one is going to take Tibet or Xinjiang away from China. If you respond to disturbances in these regions with restraint, with a statesmanlike air "more in sadness than in anger", and demonstrate an interest in attempting to resolve, rather than deny, the economic, cultural and political problems underlying these disturbances, you could earn world understanding and sympathy rather than looking like a bully.

Finally, protect Jin Jing and other Chinese torch-bearers, but otherwise call off that "people's armed police" squad guarding the Olympic torch (see Rowan Callick, "Torch guardians from Tibet crackdown unit", The Australian, 16 April 2008). Let the International Olympic Committee worry about security for its own sacred flame, and let foreign cops wrestle with the foreign protestors attacking foreign torch-bearers - unless you actually want more pictures of Chinese beating up demonstrators splashed all over world media. At the very least, have the guards take off those thuggish sunglasses!