When the activists from Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China landed on the Diaoyu Islands recently, TV cameras shot bird's-eye views from helicopters. Two journalists from Phoenix TV were among those arrested and later released by Japanese police, all in front of the cameras. The 14 men were all media-savvy, clear about what they wanted to accomplish in front of an audience. In response, 10 Japanese activists landed on the islands waving Japanese flags in front of media cameras.
Such acts are like TV reality shows with strong political symbolism, aimed at attracting media attention and provoking public outrage.
Obviously, Phoenix TV took the lead, CCTV followed suit, and then the Chinese internet exploded, triggering a much expected (at least from the media's perspective) chain reaction of protests and boycotts. The TV reality show turned ugly in some cities like Shenzhen, when demonstrators smashed and overturned a Japanese-branded police car. The Japanese media and public reacted with animosity towards China, while Japanese politicians and Chinese foreign affairs officials threw angry words at each other.
So was all this an act of public diplomacy? To be sure, with such exposure, they showcased public diplomacy at its negative extreme. In recent years, "public diplomacy" and "soft power" have become buzzwords in China and elsewhere. However, Chinese campaigns of soft power and public diplomacy tend to be reactive, passive and often haphazard. The Diaoyu Islands events are a case in point.
There is hardly any evidence that the island landing and protests were organised and supported by the state. It would be absurd for Beijing to orchestrate such a mass protest when its utmost concern is to "maintain stability" both domestically and internationally. The media, on the other hand, is more interested in boosting ratings and the Diaoyu issue is an eye-catching event.
Elite opinion usually condemns any outbreak of nationalistic fervour in China or Japan, singling it out as a cause of dangerous escalations in regional tension.
However, nationalism is an easy target. The Western media and political and intellectual elite tend to associate Chinese (and other non-Western) public sentiment over sovereignty and anti-colonialism as nationalism manipulated by either the dictatorial state or radical groups. But in each situation, public sentiments actually respond to different issues, and nailing down nationalism often misses a more complex and larger picture.
This time, both the Chinese and Japanese governments face a double bind, a real diplomatic challenge.
For Beijing, it needs to define its global vision and strategy and articulate it to the world in a firm, unambiguous and coherent manner, particularly to its Asian neighbours who have become increasingly suspicious of its assertion of power. The historical legacy of the Japanese invasion and the war, and China's historical ties with other neighbours, must be dealt with in an equally consistent fashion. However, such vision is missing. China's foreign policy has changed enormously, especially since its reform and opening up, even though vague rhetoric and abstract principles from the 1950s remain largely intact.
In the meantime, Japanese politicians are caught in a predicament of redefining the nation's goals and economic recovery, while relying completely on its alliance with the US for a containment policy towards China.
The pillar of China's Japan policy has been the separation of economics and politics, and the deferral of disputes. Forty years after their normalisation, Sino-Japanese relations remain politically cold and economically hot. Recent events have pulled the two nations farther apart, and the economy is no longer a magic wand that can remedy worsening political relations and public opinion.
Chen Haosu, the son of China's foremost diplomat, Marshal Chen Yi, warned in the Southern Weekend that this time China is being pushed passively as the tension escalates, and that "if we cannot be smarter this time, we at least shouldn't be too stupid".
What Chen, a veteran of Chinese "people's diplomacy", suggests is that China's diplomacy is at a crossroads. China's diplomacy has always been elitist, secretive and completely controlled by the state. "No foreign affair is a small affair" has been the cardinal principle that practically prevents any public or grass-roots initiatives (only in very rare cases did an absolute power such as Mao Zedong intervene, as in the case of "ping pong diplomacy").
The Chinese "people's diplomacy" is not backed up by public opinions collected routinely by professionals and think tanks, and the media - as shown in the Diaoyu Islands events - does not necessarily offer objective views.
New creative thinking is urgently needed, not only to disentangle China from the current Diaoyu Islands events but also to serve China's long-term, strategic goals.
The media and elites should think twice before either sensationalising the public anger or solely blaming nationalistic fervour as the cause of trouble. Instead, rational and diverse voices and public discussions of international affairs should be encouraged.
Before the government is able to articulate a clear and coherent global vision, diverse public opinions will serve to strengthen the state's diplomatic stance and open up the way for redefining a global strategy. Cracking down on, ignoring or fuelling public sentiment, or manipulating public opinion, will always be dangerous.
Liu Kang is professor and director of the China Research Centre, Duke UniversityTopics: Cross-Strait Relations Diplomacy Propaganda Diaoyu Islands