More on public health, PR, and China's role in the world

From a reader with a Chinese surname, in response to my suggestion that Chinese officials stick to scientific data, rather than claims about national dignity, when discussing public health issues like the current flu situation:

"Western journalists are accustomed to the shrewd answers from their own politicians facing offensive/aggressive questions. It's well known that they, the western politicians, are afraid of negative reports for their own political skins. Therefore you may also assume that Chinese officials should behave the same way, if they ever want to be accepted by the western world.

"Unfortunately, I have to say that three years stationing in China has not made you thinking like a Chinese. For most Chinese officials, their reaction toward negative western media reports is mostly about domestic consumption. They have to be resolute and principled when it comes to rebutting the 'western defamations' driven by 'ulterior motives'. It's not only about national pride, but has more to do with not being perceived by Chinese people as weak and not being able to stand up to hostile westerners. This may help you better understand why nationalism is so useful for communist government."

This rings true, and reinforces a point I made several months ago about why the voices of official China -- the government and its spokesmen -- were often so inept in presenting their case to the outside world, even though many individual Chinese people could be quite sophisticated and skillful. As this reader suggests, the root cause is that the system here is mainly inward-looking.

The complications of addressing both internal and external audiences is hardly unique to China. American politics provides examples of this every day. Same with Japan, where bone-headed politicians often play to domestic right-wingers by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, not knowing or caring that this drives people crazy here in China.

But at the moment, the internal/external problem is particularly acute for China, because its scale and foreign interactions are so great and its officials' awareness of how things sound to foreign ears seems so limited. For instance, I don't even think they would recognize the irony of hearing that their current detention of Mexican passport holders, whether they have been to Mexico recently or not, might "hurt the feelings of the Mexican people."

UPDATE: After the jump, a further note just received from the same reader

The reader writes:

I'm an overseas Chinese and had great hope of free press in the West when I left China several years ago. But most of time I'm disappointed at how condescending and naïve are the Western medias when it comes to China, and I think many overseas Chinese have the same experience...

You've argued the better way Chinese authority may follow to improve their PR campaign to the outside world. But I think the communication has never been a one way traffic. There are also much work to do for the Western medias.

The attitude of arrogance and superiority aside, here are some interesting and apparent steps for the Western media to take to smooth the hostility between them and China.
1. Accept China's uniqueness (if not exceptionalism)
2. Recognize the legitimacy of the communist regime (at least partially in terms of the progresses they have made)
3. Tolerate the minor human rights problems and individual sufferings which are common in any developing country (not to mention China's hugeness and complexity)
4. Commend and encourage steps China made toward openness, cooperation and transparency (with less grudge and suspicion)

These may sound imposable or impractical for some in the West, but consider this: Are these applicable to India? I think these are exactly how the Western media treats India. They see India as a unique place with some nostalgia; they see Indian government as one of their own; they see India's human rights problem with great tolerance and understanding; they seem never hesitate to acclaim India as one of biggest power in the world in spite of its economy is far lagging behind that of China.

I don't want to complain about the mistreatment China has been receiving. My point is China is not the biggest threat, the mistrust and misunderstanding are. If you deep-down don't see the other side as equal, you'll never get the respect you hoped.

Because all these misunderstanding and hostility, the Western media and Chinese authority are both misleading their own audience to some degree, therefore further fuel the mistrust between the East and the West; and give more ammunition to communist regime to fan nationalism flame.