Better relations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 February, 1996, 12:00am

CHINA'S leadership can be its own worst enemy when it comes to presenting the country's image to the outside world. There is a long list of 'own goals', with the misplaced threat of an Olympic boycott being simply the most recent.

Despite 16 years of opening-up to the outside world, many officials in Beijing remain unable to distinguish between propaganda and public relations. Rather than try to outline the rationale behind controversial decisions - such as the proposed weakening of the Bill of Rights - they present them in an uncompromising manner that only serves to alienate all but the most sympathetic listeners.

Few cadres brought up under a communist system understand the concept of public relations, let alone have any interest in learning the art. In time, this may change, as a new generation of Western-trained technocrats moves into positions of influence. Their overseas experience should help them understand the importance of projecting an image by explaining China to the world - and how unhelpful crude propaganda can be.

It would seem the first step in this direction is the decision of the Communist Party's Leading Group on Overseas Propaganda to commit new funds to promoting China's image overseas. Some improvements are easy to make. In impoverished parts of the third world, Taiwan's dollar diplomacy is currently winning the battle for diplomatic recognition almost by default. Beijing, with its booming economy, could well afford to ape these tactics.

China's foreign-language periodicals are also in desperate need of revamping. Founded in the days of socialist reconstruction, they have yet to take on board the party's support for a free-market economy.

The emphasis on the need to do more to lobby the US Congress is especially encouraging. Too often disputes with Washington are caused by the actions of Senators and Congressmen, so it is important to do everything possible to avoid misunderstandings by better explaining China's views on Capitol Hill. But that will only work if Beijing discards the propaganda and bullying techniques of the past and copies the more sophisticated public relations tactics used by others in Washington.

If China wants to become a great power, it must relate to the world in a more thoughtful and sophisticated manner.