Saturday 13 Aug 2022 | 22:31 | SYDNEY
Saturday 13 Aug 2022 | 22:31 | SYDNEY

Chinese public diplomacy: Taking it to Britain

3 August 2009 10:19

Amy King is a doctoral student at Oxford University working on Sino-Japanese relations.

As Fergus Hanson noted last week, China’s Ambassador to the UK (and former Ambassador to Australia), Fu Ying, believes China needs to do more on the public diplomacy front. She argues that China needs to do better at explaining its story and managing fears about its rise. In an article for the Guardian, Fu points out that:

…when I speak to British students, they constantly ask me how a stronger China will use its position, and what the ascendancy of a country so different from the West will mean to the world.

In Britain, at least, Fu appears to have a receptive audience. The British government’s relationship with China has undergone significant shifts over the last 18 months. Since January 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and more than a dozen Cabinet Ministers and Secretaries have made visits to China. In October 2008, Britain delighted the Chinese Government when it changed a century-old policy and finally recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

Then, in May this year, David Miliband stated in an interview with the Guardian that 'China is becoming an indispensable power in the 21st century'. He went on to describe America and China as 'the powers that count' in global strategic and economic terms, and bluntly suggested that Europe may not be able to insert itself within this G2 partnership.

Reflecting these views, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office released a report earlier this year outlining a new British framework for engaging China. It envisions a relationship between the two countries that is centred on 'getting the best for the UK from China’s growth', 'fostering China’s emergence as a responsible global player' and 'promoting sustainable development, modernization and internal reform in China'.

But does this flurry of government activity represent a genuine shift in British views on China? For all Fu Ying’s efforts, public diplomacy is, by definition, the process of engaging with foreign publics. Despite the Brown Government’s desire to build a new kind of engagement with China, it is not clear that the British public has come on board.

In the British press, human rights still forms a large part of the conversation on China. The British media has criticized the Brown Government for allowing human rights to slide down the agenda as it attempts to build a stronger trade relationship with China. In the last week, articles about abortion rates, the death penalty and detention of Uighurs have dominated China-related news in Britain’s major newspapers.

There is also a lack of familiarity with China in everyday British life. Whenever I tell someone here in the UK that I study Chinese, the inevitable response is an incredulous 'Chinese?' Sometimes it seems that responding with 'Swahili' would be less surprising to the average Briton.

Yet this is slowly changing. The UK’s National Centre for Languages notes that the number of students undertaking degrees in Chinese Studies tripled between 2000 and 2006, although overall numbers remain low (less than 400 students enrolled in 2006). And around 10% of secondary schools in the UK now offer Mandarin teaching. Much of this is supported by the education arm of Chinese public diplomacy, the Confucius Institute.

What does all this mean? Statistics on language acquisition and tertiary study on China signify that the country is becoming a more significant player in British eyes. Yet public diplomacy still has a long way to go. The Brown Government’s desires to 'get the best for the UK from China’s development' are juxtaposed against a tendency in the British press and public to view China as a profoundly foreign, and often threatening, country.

As Executive Director of the Lowy Institute, Michael Wesley, recently noted, this tendency to trivialize Asian countries as 'either something we can get rich from, or something we’re threatened by' does not bode well for genuine engagement. If the last 18 months is indicative, the British Government will continue to build a stronger relationship with China. The Chinese Government must now try and get the British public on board.

Photo by Flickr user Downing Street, used under a Creative Commons license.