China’s efforts to improve its image overseas continues to suffer setbacks. Two news stories yesterday threaten to confirm the picture that many in the West have of the People’s Republic as a country where citizens exercise little political and intellectual freedom, let alone freedom over reproductive rights.
First, Reuters reports that the city government in Shijiazhuang, home to the Sanlu Group whose contaminated milk sparked what is now a worldwide recall, sat on a report from the company confirming the poisoning while Beijing hosted the Olympics. More troubling, even, is the revelation that Sanlu executives requested assistance from government officials to help “manage” media coverage of the crisis: “Please can the government increase control and coordination of the media, to create a good environment for the recall of the company’s products,” the People’s Daily cited the letter from Sanlu as saying.
Then there was the report in the New York Times that Canadian researchers at The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary think tank based at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto that conducts research on new technology and global civic politics, had revealed a massive China-based Internet surveillance program involving the monitoring of Skype conversations.
The researchers reported this week that a cluster of computers in China were found to contain more than a million censored messages. The surveillance system would apparently track text messages sent by customers of Tom-Skype, a joint venture between a Chinese wireless operator and eBay, the Web auctioneer that owns Skype, an online phone and text messaging service. The researchers report that the computer networks hadn’t been properly configured, meaning that they were able to decipher the text messages and reconstruct a list of restricted words (Falun Gong, Taiwan independence, the Chinese Communist Party, democracy, earthquake and milk powder, among others) that set off the monitoring software. While the Times report indicates that it is unclear who was operating the surveillance system, the researchers suggest that it was likely a wireless firm based in China and “cooperating” with the police.
University of Toronto political scientist Ronald J. Diebert wasn’t mincing words when he described the Skype operation as a conspiracy theorist’s “worst nightmare … It’s ‘X-Files’ without the aliens.”
As the political winds blow with change, this is looking really bad for the Chinese government’s ongoing public relations and diplomacy efforts, and could pose a challenge to U.S.-based multinational corporations which have been aggressively seeking ways to access the world’s largest emerging consumer market. In a 2003 article in Public Relations Review, Juyan Zhang and Glen T. Cameron chronicled an international public relations campaign by the Chinese government in the United States “aimed at presenting a genuine, brand new image of China before the American people.” In their article, Zhang and Cameron discuss the objectives, strategies, sponsors and timeframe of the campaign and show that image building has become increasingly important as China seeks to re-frame the picture of itself in the American psyche as a “colorless land of fear and forced abortions.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 2008 Olympics were supposed to open China to the West (at least if you believe the rhetoric of those who defended having the Games in Beijing), and the Games are considered by many observers to have been nothing short of a PR success for China. What both the tainted milk and Skype stories reveal is that bad news is like a virus: it travels and infects quickly. China may have depleted whatever cultural capital it accrued in the bank of global public opinion. The important strategic question now is whether it’s time to give up on ambitions to turn China into a new kind of democracy, or to turn the screws of diplomacy ever tighter.