The Soft Power Own Goal: China, Leeds, and Mad Men

I will admit that I have no idea where Leeds is.  I know it’s in England.  I know the Who played a concert there before I was born but I only know that because I listened to “Live at Leeds” about 9,474 times one summer while commuting back and forth to work.  A quick survey of the – decidedly Yankish – office reveals that there was also a halfway decent movie made about the local soccer/football team a few years back.

I’m guessing that your average Beijinger knew as much about the city as I did…that is until today’s full-on state media blitz castigating the Leeds City Council, England, the Queen, and possibly the Queen’s kennel of championship Welsh Corgis for all having the shocking temerity to allow the Dalai Lama to speak at that well-known den of international subterfuge: the Yorkshire International Business Convention.

Of course these things matter to China, who react to anything involving the Dalai Lama the same way, say, a championship Welsh Corgi reacts when presented with its own poo wrapped in bacon, and right now it matters to the Leeds City Council because the Chinese government has chosen Leeds to be a training and preparation site for the Chinese delegation to the 2012 London Olympic Games, an arrangement, according to The Guardian, worth about 250 million pounds (USD $388 million).

Event organizers swiftly moved to defuse the crisis using carefully crafted diplomatic language specifically written to assuage Chinese sensitivities.

“Here we have an unelected communist state coming and dictating to local politicians. What we pride ourselves on in this country is freedom of speech. Clearly, they don’t.” – Mike Firth, Founder, Yorkshire International Business Conference

Or not. Whatever works.

The state media hissy fit over Leeds comes days after the Chinese government denied a visa to Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Prime Minister of Norway.  Norway, as you may remember, is that northern country known for salmon, Fjords, and giving Nobel Prizes to people the CCP really wished the world would just shut up about, and so apparently somebody in the Chinese government thought the opportunity to slap the Norwegians around a little was just too tempting to pass up.

Trying to put the best spin on the situation, the People’s Daily published comments made by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Liu Weimin urging foreign skeptics not to read too much into the denial decision, and suggesting that the Chinese government, like governments around the world, rejects visas for no apparent reason all the time.

But today an op-ed appeared in the nationalist rag The Global Times which made it quite clear that anybody who messes with China’s dignity should expect a flaming bag of cat hurled in the general direction of their front door sometime in the very near future:

“They must pay the due price for their arrogance. This is also how China can build its authority in the international arena. China doesn’t need to make a big fuss because of the Dalai or a dissident, but it has many options to make the UK and Norway regret their decision.”

You get the idea.

This is China at its soft power worst, scoring goals in its own net and making it exponentially harder to convince the rest of the world that the country is being run by grown-ups.

Take the case of the new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, produced by Alison Klayman.  It’s received some decent buzz at Sundance and other stops on the festival circuit, but that wasn’t sufficient for the Chinese government who apparently want EVERYBODY to go see this movie.

Faced with the possibility of appearing at the same film festival as Klayman’s documentary, a Chinese delegation, including representatives from CCTV, pulled out of a planned appearance rather than validate the promoter’s decision to…I don’t know, show films.  Anybody not high from inhaling industrial solvents could have predicted what happened next, because as sure as cows shit hay the festival organizers then called a press conference, chastised the Chinese delegation, and reaped a bonanza of free publicity for their festival, Ai Weiwei, Klayman and her film.

Seriously, if the powers that be really wanted to kill this film they’d have SARFT publicly give the documentary its seal of approval.

And that’s the rub. The Chinese government can’t help itself.  They’ve become so predictable that any organization, cause, event or movement that wants some buzz knows it only has to take a stick and poke China because they know a) the government will always take the bait and b) they know the response will be a staggering overreaction ultimately undermining whatever point the Chinese government hoped to make in the first place.  It’s become too easy.  The government fails to see that no matter how insecure you might feel on the outside, by acknowledging the source of your frustration and your doubt you give that source power.

As James Fallows wrote on his Atlantic Monthly blog last week:

To adapt a line from The Usual Suspects, the greatest “soft power” strength comes from appearing not to care about appearances at all. Billions for international PR campaigns, and defensive censorship about public health data? Huffiness about “the Vienna Convention”? Sigh. The country is better than this.

If the Chinese propaganda professionals really wanted to end this game, they would approach the Leeds invitation to the Dalai Lama or the next Nobel Prize winning dissident or provocative documentary about China with the same mix of disdain and hollow bravado that Don Draper used on new copywriter Michael Ginsberg this season on Mad Men. Every time the Ginsberg’s of the world get in an elevator and talk about how sorry they feel for China, just take a line from Don Draper’s playbook:

“Really? Cause I don’t think about you at all.”

That’s not really soft power, but at least China won’t be helping the other team by kicking the ball into its own goal.

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