Will $6 billion solve the Chinese PR problem?

I've written several times, in this article and and this book and various posts like this and this, about the strange difficulty Chinese institutions face when dealing with the outside world. Individual Chinese people get along very well overseas, at least in my experience. But companies and public institutions often act as if they have no clue about how foreigners think, reason, or react. The twin symbols of this difficulty are signs and brochures rendered into an "English" no foreigner can make sense of, and the official agitprop statements, from "jackal in a Buddhist monk's robes" to "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people" that undermine rather than advance their intended cause.

My job is not to help Chinese organizations advance their intended causes. But it doesn't help anybody, as I argue in the book and article, if China's clumsy public diplomacy makes the country seem more menacing, opaque, hyper-controlled, and overall bad than it really is. For another time: how different the experience of living and traveling here is from what you'd expect by just reading about the place, and generally how much better.

Thus my fascination with the much examined news this week that the Chinese authorities plan to spend 45 billion RMB, or well over $6 billion, on a new effort to explain China to the world. The original stories were in the (non-government-controlled) South China Morning Post, of Hong Kong. They're for subscribers only, so I won't link to them. (By the way, for about $1 per week, a SCMP subscription is a bargain for people interested in China.) An account in the ZhongnanhaiBlog site has many details. It also has a bracing critique of the whole idea that money is the main cause of the government's difficulties in explaining itself. Cam MacMurchy of the ZhongnanhaiBlog says:

The problem isn't lack of TV channels or media outlets that present China's case to foreigners, it's the lack of any media outlets that present China's case well.  If Xinhua's new TV endeavor is run in the same manner CCTV is, with the same group of life-long communist party members in bad suits calling the shots, it will be doomed to failure.  In fact, I'd go one step further:  any mainland Chinese run media outlet will be taken less seriously as long as general media controls are in place.

The post also contains (rare) good news for English-speaking journalists: these Chinese media outlets are going on a hiring spree! At least someone is sure to benefit from this plan.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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