Friday, March 19, 2010

A new playbook for Chinese diplomats

I learned via Stuart earlier this week that the Chinese government has been getting its knickers in a knot over 'the Tibet issue' again - despatching a team of diplomats from the San Francisco Consulate to Portland, Oregon last Monday to lodge a formal objection to that city's decision to host a 'Tibet Awareness Day' on March 10th.

The Chinese Consulate's petulant protest made the tired old claim that any discussion of the Tibet issue is giving succour to China's enemies, fomenting 'splittism', "interfering in the internal affairs of China". No, it's not: discussion is just discussion. Trying to demand the suppression of such discussion, however, is interfering in the internal affairs of the United States. And Americans are just as passionate, just as sensitive about their rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association as most Chinese are about their ownership of Tibet. Couching a protest in these terms was inept, tactless, unnecessarily confrontational, dumb. And they didn't just demand that the city cancel the event; oh, no - in the name of 'balance', they also called for the city to issue a new proclamation endorsing the Chinese government's position on Tibet. That was definitely a request too far - just silly.

All that resulted from this little escapade was that three Chinese consular officials (and their burly minder) were filmed and photographed looking deeply uncomfortable as they had to walk past Tibetan demonstrators outside Portland City Hall, thereby garnering much wider and less favourable media attention for the Chinese government's response to the 'provocation'. And they made a humble local government official (Randy Leonard, the City Commissioner who organised the Awareness Day) in one of America's smaller cities look toweringly statesmanlike in comparison to them. Not exactly a great coup for Chinese diplomacy!

The next time something like this happens, might I suggest China's Foreign Ministry tries one of these approaches instead:

1) Ignore it.
Really. Public events focusing on Tibet or the Dalai Lama only become 'important' when China chooses to make a big deal out of them. A one-day 'awareness' event in Portland, Oregon would have merited ZERO international media coverage but for China's throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram overreaction to it.

2) Endure the 'insult' with quiet dignity.
If pressed for comment, or if you feel you must register some public reaction, express your discomfort or disapproval in as muted a way as possible. Let people see your pain, but don't bang on about it.

3) Welcome it.
Yes, really. A bit of a bold, left-field kind of response, I know; groundbreaking for China. OK, Randy Leonard is evidently unsympathetic to Chinese rule in Tibet and the Portland event was going to be dominated by Tibetan emigrés hostile to China, but.... it's styled a 'Tibet Awareness' day. 'Awareness' is good. An event like this could provide an opportunity for the Chinese government to put its counter-case, that most Tibetans are content with Chinese rule and that the quality of life there has been hugely improved in recent years by massive infrastructure investments. (Further tip: try to concentrate on true - or at least plausible - ripostes to specific allegations of oppression; ditch the fatuous "historically always a part of China" justification for the occupation.) Or, if that is too difficult to carry off (and I fear Chinese government officials just aren't mentally nimble enough to engage with Tibetan dissidents in debate and not be humiliated; no, maybe it would be better just to provide a few propaganda films for screening), well.... you could always distract people's attention from all the 'bad China' talk by running a huge tourism promotion alongside - your average Oregonian is going to think "Hey, this place is beautiful; it doesn't look like a concentration camp at all. And things can't be that bad if the Chinese are encouraging us to come visit. They've got nothing to hide." A simple but hugely effective strategy.

Any of these tactics would be a vast improvement on whingeing like a spoilt four-year-old. How about it, chaps? Time for a change of tack?

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