Fierce and Friendly: China's Two Diplomatic Faces

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

China's President, Hu Jintao, and U.S. President Barack Obama stand together during a state arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 19, 2011

With his carefully mussed hair, University of Southern California T-shirt and black blazer, Zhong Shi is the very model of laid-back West Coast cool. But while studying for a graduate degree in public relations at USC, the 23-year-old Chinese native got an offer he couldn't refuse: to serve as an anchor for CNC, a new 24-hour English news channel beamed worldwide by Xinhua, China's biggest news agency. "Now my friends in California say they've seen my programs, and I'm like, That's so awesome," says Zhong. "I'm back in China, but our message is going out to the world."

Though it has 15,000 Chinese employees and plans to open a newsroom in New York City's Times Square, Xinhua isn't just a media behemoth. Founded in 1931 as the Red China News Agency, it is also the propaganda arm of the Chinese government. Scurrying around CNC's makeshift newsroom squeezed in a former canteen, Zhong and his co-workers earnestly talk about objectivity and target audiences. But make no mistake: Xinhua is still the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, releasing reports praising China's top leaders while omitting nearly all criticism of the party. "Our ultimate goal is to be responsible for our nation and our people," says Wu Jincai, deputy editor in chief at Xinhua, adding, "a lot of foreigners have a stereotyped view of Chinese, and we would like to slowly correct these prejudices."

The dual nature of Zhong Shi — California hipster vs. cog in the Communist Party machine — mirrors the two faces of China in the world today. One side is suave and cosmopolitan. The other is assertive and even arrogant, demanding global respect while bridling at any international criticism with the petulance of a teenager.

As President Hu Jintao has prepared for his state visit to the U.S. starting Tuesday, China's softer side has been on display. The U.S. is eager to tackle specific issues, like Beijing's recent crackdown on political dissidents and its unwillingness to allow its currency, the yuan, to appreciate, which would reduce China's yawning bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. But Beijing traditionally views such leadership summits as more symbolic than substantive. The goodwill surrounding Hu's visit may fade quickly, but the battle between the two sides of Chinese diplomacy shows no sign of abating.

A Different China
In 2004, Qin Yaqing, executive vice president of China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, the breeding ground of future diplomats, gave a speech to China's Politburo. Qin was a bit nervous to be addressing such an elite group. It was the first time, he says, that anyone had used the term global governance in an official Chinese document. What would China's leaders think of someone daring to ask Beijing to involve itself more productively in international relations? "I finished my lecture, and there were no questions," recalls Qin. "I realized, what I thought might be controversial and quite new was something that [China's leaders] were ready to accept. It was a new era."

It always bears reminding just how far China has come diplomatically, and how fast. In the late 1960s, China was cloistered behind a bamboo curtain. Its major diplomatic ally was Albania. Even a generation ago, most of China's international envoys were Soviet-schooled party men who, as former high-ranking diplomat Wu Jianmin puts it, "had no idea what to do with a butter knife and wore white socks with suits." Today's men of power — there are few women of power, despite Mao Zedong's principle that women "hold up half the sky" — are fluent in the argot of international diplomacy. With China surpassing Japan as the world's second biggest economy last year, they have alluring goods to sell to the world. But even more than commercial savvy, this international corps is imbued with a sense of can-do optimism, representing a country in which nearly 9 in 10 people say they are bullish about the nation's future, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey. "For a long time, the economy has been the center of the Chinese government's attention because it was important to build up our nation," says Wu, who served as China's ambassador to France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. "Now we are focusing on our global vision and presenting China to the world."

That presence is being felt. Chinese diplomats in Washington now wine and dine members of Congress, instead of bunkering themselves in their decrepit former embassy. (The new embassy, unveiled in 2008, is Washington's largest.) In addition to Xinhua's CNC, the country's state-run CCTV has in recent months unveiled overseas programming in Russian and Arabic, adding to its English, French and Spanish offerings. More than 300 Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes teach Mandarin in nearly 100 countries.

But even as China unleashed its global charm offensive in 2010, its other face was still evident. In recent months, China has made aggressive claims in historic maritime disputes, putting Beijing at odds with its neighbors. When Washington indicated that it might dip a mediating hand in the contested waters of the East and South China seas, Beijing responded indignantly. "The freedom of navigation which the U.S. claims to protect is actually the freedom of the U.S. military to threaten other countries," fulminated an editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party — owned daily. Later in the year, when regional powers leaned on China to publicly rein in North Korea, Beijing turned silent, refusing to engage in the kind of forceful diplomacy many had hoped it was now willing to pursue.

The low point of this phase came with the awarding in October of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. Dozens of his fellow intellectuals were detained in a crackdown following the award's announcement and China launched a campaign to force other nations to boycott the Dec. 10 ceremony. In the end, few countries avoided Oslo, but Beijing's lobbying against the prize was so heavy-handed that it drew more attention to the Nobel than if China had simply ignored it. "The choice before some European countries and others is clear and simple," warned Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai in the lead-up to the Nobel ceremony. "Do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China's judicial system, or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people?" And Cui is no global neophyte. He holds a postgraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University and was one of the chief Chinese negotiators at the G-20 meeting in Seoul last year.

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