Great triumphs of Chinese public diplomacy, part 294

And now for the latest instalment of “how not to do public diplomacy”.  Last time, readers will recall, we observed with interest as Chinese government sources called the Dalai Lama a terrorist and implied that he might be a Nazi.  Later, of course, it transpired that these comments were merely a prelude, a limbering up before the real race, when Tibet’s Communist Party chief Zhang Quingli commented modestly that,

The Dalai Lama is a wolf wrapped in a habit, a monster with a human face and animal’s heart. We are now engaged in a fierce blood-and-fire battle with the Dali clique, a life-and-death battle between us and the enemy.

Not bad, not bad.  But of course, if you really want to make an impact with your public diplomacy campaign, then you need to break out of regarding the state as your only communication platform.  You need a coalition: a loose, decentralised network of advocates who are all animated by a central orienting idea. 

And so to this morning’s New York Times.  We start our tale on the day last week when the Olympic torch was being carried through San Francisco.  In Durham, North Carolina, the campus of Duke University saw a face-off between two rival groups of activists: one pro-Tibetan, one (much larger) pro-Chinese.  A student, Grace Wang, came out of the dining hall and saw that she had friends on both sides of the increasingly ugly confrontation.  Now read on:

Ms. Wang tried to get the two groups to talk, participants said. She began traversing what she called “the middle ground,” asking the groups’ leaders to meet and making bargains [sic]. She said she agreed to write “Free Tibet, Save Tibet” on one student’s back only if he would speak with pro-Chinese demonstrators. She pleaded and lectured. In one photo, she is walking toward a phalanx of Chinese flags and banners, her arms overhead in a “timeout” T.

Clearly this sort of moderate, consensus-oriented position represented a massive threat to perceptions of China in the run-up to the Olympics.  What was she thinking?  Had she no pride in her nation?  Fortunately, though, the network-based coalition was good to go:

The next day, a photo appeared on an Internet forum for Chinese students with a photo of Ms. Wang and the words “traitor to your country” emblazoned in Chinese across her forehead. Ms. Wang’s Chinese name, identification number and contact information were posted, along with directions to her parents’ apartment in Qingdao, a Chinese port city.

Salted with ugly rumors and manipulated photographs, the story of the young woman who was said to have taken sides with Tibet spread through China’s most popular Web sites, at each stop generating hundreds or thousands of raging, derogatory posts, some even suggesting that Ms. Wang — a slight, rosy 20-year-old — be burned in oil. Someone posted a photo of what was purported to be a bucket of feces emptied on the doorstep of her parents, who had gone into hiding.

“If you return to China, your dead corpse will be chopped into 10,000 pieces,” one person wrote in an e-mail message to Ms. Wang. “Call the human flesh search engines!” another threatened, using an Internet phrase that implies physical, as opposed to virtual, action.

So there we are: another public diplomacy triumph (this story ran on the front page of the Times today).  Before, China’s main communications problem was perceptions of a monolithic, repressive state.  Now, its more enthusiastic netizens have managed to start the ball rolling on getting its people seen as mad, foaming-at-the-mouth nationalists as well.  Score!