China's Public Diplomacy: Have You Ever Tried to Call the Chinese Embassy?

"In modern times, public diplomacy is becoming increasingly important. Governments of countries worldwide attach great importance to public diplomacy to promote their soft power and influence."

--"Getting smart with public diplomacy," People's Daily Online (March 26, 2010)

Much appears in cyberspace about mainland China's growing public diplomacy programs, from media events meant to persuade to Confucius Centers meant, supposedly, to educate. As I compile my Public Diplomacy Press Review, which is based on internet media/blog items, I find references to China's PD far outnumber those of other countries, with the exception of the U.S., Israel, and perhaps Canada (other countries often mentioned in relation to PD, but not as frequently as China, are Turkey and India). Japan and South Korea also appear on occasion. Practically nothing out of Africa, except sometimes from Ghana and South Africa. Latin America? Just about nada, except for usually critical articles about Chavez from US right-wing sources.

The above general comments are, of course, observations not backed by statistics, but rather from my near-daily searches on the internet that lead me to conclude that China, far more than most countries, is striving to represent itself overseas as a soft-power, user-friendly country "into" PD. Scholars such as Joshua Kurlantzick have written authoritatively about such issues.

But have you, ordinary citizen like myself, ever tried to touch base with the Communist Chinese Embassy in Washington? Its website is, to put it charitably, under construction. If you click on the all-important part of any website, "contact us," you get the following message: "Sorry, the webpage you browsed has been deleted!."

I did find a phone number on the site -- only one number, for a humongous, recently-built embassy, frankly an architectural obscenity full of totalitarian implications, occupying a large amount of physical space in NW Washington. The number (if you're patient enough finally to discover it at the bottom of the embassy's website) is (202) 328-2500. I tried calling this number for some three hours, but it was constantly busy.

Yes, the Chinese embassy site does have a section, "Public Diplomacy" -- but it emphasizes official government statements pertaining to the issue. To me, as a former State Department bureaucrat knowing all too well that going up the career ladder means making the bosses in Washington happy -- rather than worrying what the "natives" in other countries think -- that smells like Chinese Embassy employees just advertising what headquarters wants on paper (or should I say computer screens) rather than "engaging" with the host country.

I should note, at this point, that my attempts to reach the Chinese Embassy were an effort to arrange a meeting of students taking my "International Affairs: Public Diplomacy" course to talk with Chinese diplomats regarding what their government often writes about -- public diplomacy and its importance. The goal of this encounter would be to understand China's relations to the world from a PD perspective.

But, as its one phone line that's constantly busy suggests, the non-reaction of the Chinese mission to an effort from this teacher to "reach out" internationally suggests, at least from a "micro" perspective, that Chinese Embassy officials are essentially inaccessible to expand the dialogue with the public in the host country.

We Americans, whose tendency is to preach, are all too often guilty of this kind of elitism (exclusiveness?) in our own diplomatic posts abroad. Much has been written about our "fortress embassies," where diplomats are hidden behind walls for "security" reasons. Could we be just afraid to mingle with the natives, much as Chinese diplomats appear to be?

Update: Chinese Embassy in the U.S. Launches Redesigned Website
June 12 (2010)

FULL DISCLOSURE

1. My "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review" blog, which means no harm to anyone and whose essential aim is to amuse, is apparently "filtered out" in China (as I recently learned from one reliable source; please correct me if I'm wrong).

2. No, I'm not a Google contractor -- and we all know about its problems in China -- although my blog is a free-of-charge "Google" one.