The Chinese Student Frontline in PRC's Olympic Public Diplomacy

05/05/2008 09:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When the term public diplomacy is raised in the US, it's usually in terms of the influence of an American voice in winning hearts and minds abroad. Rarely is there a useful examination of the US as a target for public diplomacy (nor is there much attention to the public diplomacy of other countries).

I've been thinking about this with respect to the actions and counter protests by many Chinese students to Olympic protests in the United States and elsewhere over the last weeks. One can "reverse engineer" these efforts to try to understand, from current events, how Chinese students in the United States figure in the public diplomacy strategy of China (especially with respect to the Olympics.

There's a general context: Joshua Kurlatznick has written a book on the subject of China's public diplomacy, Charm Offensive and Nicholas Cull at USC has written an essay specifically on the background of public diplomacy and the Olympics in Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China.

But let's get back to students. The US government has (especially in its more lucid moments) seen the public diplomacy benefit to America of having foreign students at US universities, though it's striking how complex achieving that goal has been to administer post 9/11.

But it's interesting to see the strategy for the sending country, in this case China. There are now 45,000 Chinese students in the United States. This carries the potential for them to become a voice in the US. We've seen the effect of this in the torch debates and the counterpart protests elsewhere.

In Seoul, during the Tibet demonstrations, thousands of Chinese supporters marched and mixed it up a bit with the police. " Footage of a Chinese student striking a Korean protester with a flying kick has resonated widely." According to an article in the South China Morning Post by Greg Torode:

aside from diplomatic action and a formal investigation, Seoul's foreign ministry has announced it will toughen visa rules for Chinese students. Reports that Chinese embassy officials encouraged students, many of whom were based in the southern port of Pusan, to head to Seoul are of particular concern. One civic leader has called on the police to make the Chinese ambassador accountable. Increasing numbers of young South Koreans and Chinese students had been taking advantage of study exchanges that reflected warming ties between Seoul and Beijing -- a relationship mirrored by state and business relations.

A more strident and conspiracy-laden story about Chinese student involvement appears in Andrei Chang's very strongly ideological piece "China's Spies in the West," distributed by UPI. UPI is the news agency controlled by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church through News World Communications. According to the piece:

Every time the Chinese have been called to the streets for political action, visiting Chinese scholars and representatives from Chinese student associations at Toronto universities have played a leading role in organizing and conducting these events. Such associations exist on many U.S. and Canadian campuses. Most of them were set up after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on student demonstrators in Beijing.

Originally these Chinese student organizations opposed the Beijing regime. However, since 1995 they have gradually shifted toward a pro-Beijing position. Diplomats assigned to the Education Section of a Chinese Embassy or Consulate become deeply involved with these associations -- monitoring their activities, sometimes openly funding them, or offering financial support to students judged to be pro-China.

But there's plenty of support for the view that these students were genuinely moved to protest, genuinely annoyed by depictions of China and spontaneous in their involvement. A much more benign and positive account of student activity appeared in late April in the New York Times: "Chinese Students in the U.S. Fight a 'Biased' View of Home", by Shaina Dewan:

The student anger, stoked through e-mail messages sent to large campus mailing lists, stems not so much from satisfaction with the Chinese government but from shock at the portrayal of its actions, as well as frustration over the West's long-standing love affair with Tibet -- a love these students see as willfully blind.

By and large, they do not acknowledge the cultural and religious crackdown in Tibet, insisting that ordinary Tibetans have prospered under China's economic development, and that only a small minority are unhappy.

'Before I came here, I'm very liberal,'' said Minna Jia, a graduate student in political science at U.S.C. who encouraged fellow students to attend the monk's lecture. ''But after I come here, my professor told me that I'm nationalist.''

''I believe in democracy,'' Ms. Jia added, ''but I can't stand for someone to criticize my country using biased ways. You are wearing Chinese clothes and you are using Chinese goods.''

Here are some ruminations on this question I've picked up in conversation with former or present students from China:

"The terms "pro-China" and "political demonstration" are both confusing and amusing. The students' loyalty towards the Party and towards the nation is two different things, and the demonstrations are definitely more of a nationalistic/patriotic nature than a "political" one. (A small example that might be relevant is the speeches by consulate officials at the Chinese New Year celebration parties were very often booed by the Chinese students, since they were dull, rigid and reminiscent of the "patriotic education" along the party line we were so used to and tired of back in China.) "

"The student demonstrations on the Olympic torch and CNN commentary this time are primarily voluntary. The role of the embassy/consulate officials, if there's any, was to encourage/facilitate them (rather than the opposite-to suppress, which would be true for anything related to the commemoration of 1989)."

"The interesting thing this time is the nationalistic sentiments of overseas Chinese, students or otherwise, coincides with the policy/PR agenda of the PRC government. (A parallel case is the NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 with tragic casualties - the public demonstrations in Beijing, esp. in front of the US Embassy, were mostly voluntary; as were those in front of the French supermarket chain Carrefour this time- the only difference the government could make was to facilitate them for a while, and then had to control them for fear that things would get out of hand."

At any rate, with meetings beginning between the PRC and envoys of the Dalai Lama, with France trying to sweeten its relationship with China, with students effectively playing the nationalist-related card, it's possible that the protest movements might have peaked. For an orderly analysis, take a look at Jeff Wasserstrom's blog on the Battle of the Beijing Boycotts (finding four kinds of debates and sorting them out: boycott the games, boycott the Opening Ceremonies, boycott the Relay, boycott the corporate sponsors and related entities.