Monday, March 7, 2011

Little Guests in the Moon Palace

I cannot avoid it any longer. I must write about that mysterious looming giant in the East, that enigmatic economic power house with a fluffy yet heavy-handed PR agent, China. And yes, our dear Mr. Clemens did have insight into this topic- though I would recommend that one read it within the context of the era and environment (America in the late 1880s- not exactly fertile ground for professors social philosophy) in which it was formulated. As he saw it, the Chinese were

"...a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries. They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist."
- Roughing It, 1871

Awkward racial terms aside, there is something to be said about the way that the Chinese have generally been perceived by non-Chinese as hard-working, determined, and relatively passive, since their entrance into international trade and politics. Reapplying Twain's broad generalization to our public diplomacy analysis, I can actually extrapolate some viable points about China's public policy in general, and its PD in specific. For instance, take China's space program, and its amazing accompanying propaganda posters, from the 1970s*.

This one is called "Little Guests in the Moon Palace" and it is probably the best thing I have ever seen. Pictures like these exemplify a very specific goal of not only achieving a presence in space exploration as a point of domestic pride, but also appearing benign in an international context. Who could take issue with sending gleeful obese babies to play with bunnies in space? No one, that's who. You will notice there are no posters depicting Chinese satellites continuously broadcasting the phrase "The East is Red." This is another aspect of a centuries-long Chinese philosophy of appearing relatively unobtrusive abroad, while in actuality working diligently to develop capacity and power of varying hard/softness on both sides of its borders. We won't know their real power until it is too late for the US to even hypothesize about competition.

But the cuteness does not stop there. When Nicholas Cull mentioned "prestige gifts" in his writing on cultural diplomacy, I immediately thought, "Pandas!" I often think about pandas in general, but in this case I was remembering an article about China's eerily calculated cuteness in its distribution of the softest of soft power, the panda, as a sign of friendship. It is a great tool, as the animal is described by panda trade scholars** as a "mega-charismatic" creature, capable of turning all humans into shiny piles of giggles and happiness with a mere glance from their furry little panda faces. The practice, dubbed "panda diplomacy," has resulted in many pairs being sent to various nations, perhaps most famously to the US in 1972 and to Taiwan*** in 2008.

China is still perfecting its friendly image today, and continues to be just overzealous enough as to make its presence known, while making western audiences ask themselves incredulously what they could have possibly been thinking, as with the much talked about ad the Chinese government recently slapped on a skyscraper in Times Square. My recommendation to China is this: stop wasting time trying to convince us that Yao Ming is our friend while you shove melamine-laced cardboard into our snack cakes, and just make us more fat space baby art. It will work wonders.


*The 1970s were also charatcerized by "ping pong diplomacy" another quirky and slightly off PD effort involving an exchange of table tennis champions between the US and China. I swear I am not making this up.

**They do exist, and there are more than one of them.

***The bears sent to Taiwan were named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, which together mean the word "reunification." If that is not an act of CD (Cuddly Diplomacy) then I just don't know what is.

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