Intensify media diplomacy

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Intensify media diplomacy

“North Korea is unappreciative of Chinese support and in fact is putting the country in an awkward position in a maverick way. .?.?. It spends whatever money it has on nuclear development. .?.?. Does the regime even care for its people?” wrote a researcher at Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences in a local journal. The blunt remarks in the article published in August 2004 represented rare outspoken criticism against China’s traditional ally, North Korea. But the price was heavy. The 11-year-old journal was censored a month after being released. North Koreans were behind the move.

Five years later in July 2009, a documentary channel of Shanghai Media Group aired a documentary series “Eyewitness on North Korea,” exposing how isolated and behind the times the society was. Doctors could not even perform simple cataract surgery. After North Korea’s pitiful state was aired on Chinese TV, viewers poked fun at North Korea on the Internet. Later, executives of the TV station and producers of the program were summoned to Beijing and received heavy punishments. North Korea is said to have complained strongly to authorities in Beijing.

Pyongyang carries on with censorship in Chinese media. On Feb. 28, an editor of a Communist Party journal contributed an article to The Financial Times, advising Beijing authorities to abandon North Korea. Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of the Study Times, a weekly journal of the Central Party School that trains officials, is under pressure to quit because of the article. He cited five strong reasons why China must stop advocating for North Korea and re-examine policy toward it with the momentum of the recent nuclear test. After the English article drew attention, the Chinese version was distributed online and stirred discussions among the Chinese public.

He recently told the JoongAng Sunday that he was dismissed from office. It may evidently have been Pyongyang’s doing. North Korea, which meticulously controls everything in the hermit kingdom, still thinks it can play king with Chinese media. So why does Pyongyang try so hard to censor? It may be fearful that it will lose favor with the Chinese people.

The Chinese have traditionally had a soft heart for North Koreans. They believe North Koreans are akin to brothers even though they are a different ethnic group. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin wrote in his visitor’s book to North Korea that he had visited a relative’s home. Many Chinese still regard North Koreans as poor relatives from the same ideological lineage. They try to understand and tolerate North Koreans’ erratic habits as their desperate means of living. They basically bear empathy toward North Korea. This is why the Beijing government has been steadfastly advocating for North Koreans on the international stage.

The change in Chinese media’s perspective toward North Korea is meaningful because it can influence public opinion. The Chinese public will see North Korea in a different light once the Chinese report on Pyongyang accurately and critically. That’s what North Korea fears most. The new leadership of President Xi Jinping is sensitive to public opinion. As it can no longer demand absolute loyalty and justify the legitimacy of single-party rule as in the past, Beijing tries to win over the public through populist policies.

Chinese leaders have been endeavoring to win favor with the public in the modern age in the absence of strong charismatic rulers like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2008 canceled a summit with French President Nicolas Sarkozy because of bad public sentiment after the French leader invited Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader Dalai Lama. Wen received more than 1,000 letters from Chinese netizens demanding cancelation of the summit.

President Xi takes his glamorous former folk singer wife Pen Liyuan on his overseas trips, and newly elected Premier Li Keqiang was seen waving more than 30 times during the closing ceremony of the National People’s Congress - all for media spotlight. If the Chinese media starts to be critical of North Korea, public sympathy could turn into apathy. The Beijing government would then inevitably have to revise its policy on North Korea.

It is too early to believe Beijing is changing its stance on North Korea in the backdrop of Pyongyang’s heightened tensions and intensifying threats of war. Pyongyang is so far desperately intervening with censorship to keep the Chinese media on its side.

Our work is set out for us. We must strengthen public diplomacy to influence Chinese public opinion. We should try to win the Chinese people’s hearts through public diplomacy. On communication on the foreign front, the government can work through propaganda, media and cultural exchanges. The Park Geun-hye government emphasizes strengthened cultural exchanges with China, but it should also intensify media diplomacy. Policies change according to the times. Changes can be best initiated and led by the media.

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul
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