Chinese President Xi Jinping recently had a cameo in the animated adult cartoon “South Park.” In the episode, Xi (not the real Xi) revealed that Japan decides “who is gay or not” in Asia. The character also said the Japanese “are dogs who refuse not apologize to the Chinese Republic” and then kissed his Korean-speaking secretary, an apparent reference to South Korean President Park Geun-hye. That’s a lot to unravel from less than half a minute of provocative airtime, but the satire has been censored only in China, where tolerance for mockery is still pretty low.
When it comes to public diplomacy, China might be better off loosening up and developing a sense of humor about itself. Gone are the days of Hu Jintao’s “smile diplomacy,” which aimed to convince the world that it had nothing to fear from a rising China. Xi has made a point of being assertive, flexing muscles, waving cash and dismissing any criticism about efforts to make the South China Sea into Lake China. Didn’t the place need a few new islands with runways?
Xi, like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been crisscrossing the globe to grab the limelight. He’s trying to nurture better relations and remind leaders what China wants while revving up patriotism at home to distract attention from the consequences of a slowing economy. He’s the face of a proud China regaining its proper place and showing usurpers what’s what.
Alas, when he met Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou on Nov. 7, Xi ducked the press conference, making him look rather feeble. Just like Abe, the Chinese president doesn’t face real press conferences as everything is carefully scripted down to which craven reporter asks which softball question.
Abe actually reads responses from a teleprompter because his aides know the dangers of letting him improvise doltish remarks, such as the one he made at the United Nations about refugees when a reporter asked an impertinent followup question. The prime minister answered along the lines of, “Er, we can’t do anything about refugees until we get more important stuff done like generating jobs, promoting women and … damn … what was that third arrow?!”
Xi is apparently also allergic to such situations, so he bailed and let his minister for Taiwan field the scripted anodyne questions from assigned lap-dog reporters. While Xi’s pathetic disappearing act went unremarked, Ma’s comments were heavily edited in China lest anyone hear anything embarrassing about how many missiles target Taiwan.
Pankaj Mishra, author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia,” calls the current demonization of China a third wave of “yellow peril.” He says the crucial difference is that compared to the first two waves — in the early 19th century sparked by an influx of Asian migrants to the United States, and then from the 1930s with Japanese aggression targeting an Asian takeover — the current Sino-centric yellow peril is the only one with potential to live up to its feared outcome. China is challenging the status quo in Asia and asserting its hegemonic ambitions in ways that have instigated what seems like Cold War II. Time may be on China’s side, but in the meantime Beijing is trying to goose its image, especially in the U.S. This has not been helped by the heavy hand of Confucius Institutes, based at American universities where the nonprofit tries to impose taboos, guide research agendas and influence hiring.
In his book “Asia in Washington: Exploring the Penumbra of Transnational Power,” Kent Calder explains why the U.S. is a crucial battleground for Asian governments. Calder, director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University in Washington, politely berates Japan’s inbred, hereditary diplomatic corps and its public diplomacy failures.
“In bilateral skirmishes within Washington against East Asian neighbors over territorial and historical issues … the neighbors typically come out ahead, although Japan achieves its policy goals bilaterally with the United States on most important security questions,” he says. “To a greater degree than most foreign nations, China represents its interests in Washington by working through local American organizations with similar concerns, rather than directly. These bodies have collectively helped to stabilize China’s role in Washington, including agenda-setting, early warning, public education and informal lobbying.”
Ringing the alarm bells, Calder adds that in 2009, as much as 60 billion Chinese yuan ($8.8 billion) was pumped into the big four Beijing media outlets — Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, China Radio International (CRI) and China Daily — to fund their global expansion. Recent news reports have detailed the spread of CRI in the States and how it has surreptitiously infiltrated U.S. airwaves by supporting radio stations in exchange for exerting editorial control over how the news is reported — removing anything nasty about China.
Calder also notes that China has been nurturing closer relations with the 4.3 million Chinese-American citizens of the United States, something he believes Japan is now belatedly undertaking, but has found more awkward due to its wartime history.
William Brooks, a 35-year State Department veteran and adjunct professor of Japanese Studies at SAIS, agrees that Japan is losing out to China in the information wars.
“China, through its sophisticated CCTV World channel, has emerged as the clear technological leader in the de facto information-providing rivalry with Japan,” he says. “It has set up a Washington bureau and state-of-the art programming that is as sophisticated as CNN’s, even to the extent of adding top-notch American anchors and reporters to present hard-hitting balanced news and features to a world audience. Japan has no comparable U.S.-based programming.”
In Brooks’ opinion, China has earned a super-achiever award for its English-language media efforts, noting that the U.S. edition of the China Daily is available on Kindle for only $5 a month, China Watch is a free insert in major newspapers such as The Washington Post, and CCTV broadcasts (with two channels in English) are readily available on satellite, cable and the Internet. All of this helps shape U.S. opinion toward China and gives it an opportunity to counter negative coverage in the States and other international media while also presenting human-interest stories that appeal to audiences. It also broadcasts grisly documentaries about the Sino-Japanese war that viscerally challenge the revisionist history embraced by Abe and fellow travelers.
While Japan has NHK World, it pales in comparison to CCTV, according to Brooks.
“There seem to be endless fashion shows and cooking shows … and the emphasis on ‘Cool Japan’ — programs centering on the wide-eyed views of young foreigners living in Japan regarding aspects of the country that appeal to them, or perplex them,” he says.
Overall, Brooks believes the Japanese media is far better at disseminating news about the U.S. to Japanese audiences than conveying Japanese views in order to influence American public opinion. This is especially true when it comes to promoting the revisionists’ self-exonerating wartime history. That’s why Tokyo has hired U.S. lobbyists to do it instead.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.