Of state visits and public diplomacy…

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Is soft power enhanced by state visits in this day and age, or are these official events a liability for more significant forms of influence in this day and age? One can wonder indeed about this, as President Hu Jintao nears the end of his trip to France and Portugal.

President Hu’s reception in Paris had the quality of a ritual to atone for the recent past – the treatment of the Olympic flame by demonstrators in 2008, at the height of the public emotion over Tibet.  The state decorum, the public signature of contracts demonstrating a form of tribute diplomacy,  and most of all what was clearly deemed to be publicly unmentionable – human rights and its many declinations.  It all felt clearly somewhat awkward for the principals. So there was no background spin on the French side to put all of this in perspective with previous policies, just silence. And on the side of the visitors, the presidential couple had simply no contact with the public or even the press during the Paris visit.

The unmentionable therefore became the unavoidable in media comments.  Were contracts worth shutting up on human rights? Was president Sarkozy performing a 180° turnaround? Predictably, a president who has become a frequent target of criticism for his reforms found himself accused of political cynicism. The criticism came from civil society and the media more than from the political opposition – which has remained remarkably discreet on these issues: indeed, saying nothing about human rights can be construed as a proof that one is ready to govern…

Had the Chinese president visited some of the sites where contracts – such as the Airbus sales – are likely to give jobs to French (and European workers), he might have made a case that economic relations with China can be “win-win”, as he asserted in an interview. After all,  the White House now posts a “jobometer” on its website to highlight the benefits of contracts with India. But security considerations on both sides – the need to avoid at all cost a flag or banner waving incident, for example – clearly walled in the Chinese delegation.

On their part, French official hosts remained more restrained than their immediate predecessors. President Chirac had once waltzed with president Jiang Zemin’s wife, and the Eiffel Tower had been painted red in January 2004 - a fad which spread to the London Tower Bridge and to downtown Manhattan in ulterior visits.  Tellingly, Mr. Sarkozy felt the need to mention in his public toast to the Chinese president that Sino-French dialogue was “without limits, borderless and without taboo”. He departed from his written text to state that Mr. Hu had been “receptive to the issue of intellectual property rights” during their conversation. He also mentioned at length the primacy of European policy – trying to dispel the impression that these bilateral visits may undermine overall European policy.  The Chinese president focused more on the future, and on business and common interest, than on the rhetorical exercise of celebrating the decision by De Gaulle to establish diplomatic relations in 1964: a page is turning.

The visit might have stayed at that – with interesting but not wholly unexpected contracts, such as 107 Airbus planes (150 had earlier been mentioned), another long wait ahead for French nuclear plant sales, a Total investment in liquefied coal, and perhaps most interestingly, a long-term contract by Areva to supply uranium to China. Whether this is an industrial supply of reactor-grade enriched fuel, or the raw mining material will be very interesting to find out. Should it be the first, the French are going up the chain in nuclear cooperation, as is their public intention. Should it be the second, since the uranium is now essentially mined in Niger, where the threat of Al-Qaeda now looms large, the French would instead perform the role of a commodity supplier, shielding Chine from an undeniable geopolitical risk in Africa.

One would be left, as usual these days, with tallying up the benefits for each side of a give-and-take diplomacy. And indeed, if soft power is first and foremost a case of highlighting the mutual benefits of commerce, the new China has a chance to make its case convincingly.

But as it is, there is also an old China, with a harder ideological edge, and which can’t let a half-victory alone. During the one and only press briefing of the visit on its first day, vice-minister Fu Ying declared that the Liu Xiaobo issue “was not a case to be discussed between China and France”. Suddenly, the unmentioned became the unmentionable.

This is probably what prompted Nicolas Sarkozy to remark - on the third day - to journalists that human rights had indeed been discussed with President Hu, although he put it across very mildly – clearly, walking a fine line for a man who has been accused by some to be an irresponsible firebrand, and by others to turn his back on the issue. The two men met the public briefly in Nice - as if to correct the impression of a visit entirely without warmth.

And Mr. Hu flew away, to Portugal where he’ll remind his hosts that China is a buyer of public bonds, and the Portuguese might remind him that they come with a hefty interest premium. 

The lingering ambiguity over the human rights issue in Paris is a harbinger of more problems to come. Another vice-minister, Mr. Cui Tiankai – known to all of his interlocutors, as is Mrs. Fu Ying, for his considerable talent – has put his foot heavily in the door, by threatening Europeans – and others - who would attend the Oslo award of the Nobel prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo that they’ll have to choose between the ceremony and partnership with China.

Were these declarations to be confirmed, they would simply light a fire under Sino-European relations. The notion that a country can dictate to Europeans whether they may attend a Nobel ceremony in Oslo is simply outlandish, and will probably be remembered as another case of the hubris that often comes with impressive economic achievements.  Chinese officials and experts make no bones about what they think is an undeserved negative rating of their country in European public opinion. By acting so heavily, they only worsen the predicament of their public diplomacy. Hopefully, some one in Beijing – perhaps Hu Jintao when he flies home - will tell off the hardliners who have come up with this idea.

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