Pressuring China to Change

Paul Lau Chun Man (Hong Kong/Canada, UWC AC 2010-2012)

China has been increasingly thrust into the international political spotlight, following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the more recent financial crisis. Then again, China has long been on the receiving end of international campaigns that call for changes to be made internally, especially on the issue of human rights. There are usually two ways of approaching China. The first is the public route, what I like to term ‘Naming and Shaming’, which is the more oft used approach. The second is the more subtle course involving behind-the-scene pressure and diplomacy. It is hard to know exactly how often behind-the-scenes diplomacy is used, and its effectiveness. By definition, this soft power is unknown and more covert.

Whilst we do not know how effective soft power is in effecting change in China, the more public route certainly hasn’t been very effective. In a series of high-profile cases, including Liu Xiaobo and blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a significant amount of public pressure has been heaped onto China. Sadly, it has come to little effect. Liu Xiaobo is still under arrest, as is Chen Guangcheng. Christian Bale’s little stunt in December, when he tried to visit Chen Guangcheng, didn’t help either.

The problem with the attempt to name and shame China is that it often has the opposite of the intended impact. There is a concept in Chinese culture to do with ‘face’, the likely equivalent in english would be ‘reputation’. At it’s simplest, it means the Chinese government needs to maintain its name in the eyes of the public. Bowing to international pressure goes directly against their narrative of a strong government. By putting international pressure on China, any capitulation on the part of the government makes them look weak, something that they will go to great lengths to avoid.

On the other hand, by removing the large foreign pressure for change, China’s government is able to portray any changes as its own initiative, removing the risk that it is seen as politically weak in the face of western influence. We see this in things like Climate Change where China has resisted international pressure whilst promoting its own standards and programs for renewable energy. Sadly, whilst China can introduce an energy program without being seen as succumbing to external pressure, an issue like Liu Xiaobo leaves little room for choice. In the face of a rigid dichotomy between release and continued arrest. Western pressures for release leave China with a choice between continued arrest, and appearing to fold to international pressure release him.

That’s not to say international pressure can’t be effective. International attention arguably helped the case of Ai Weiwei, ensuring that the most brutal measures weren’t used. The Chinese government is certainly conscious of international scrutiny and thus are more likely to avoid the most severe punishments and choices in politically contentious cases. By introducing a measured level of international pressure, the Chinese government are warned from committing the worst atrocities whilst still leaving them enough room to make changes without loosing face.

Vast amounts of international pressure is often counter product as they strip away China’s face, encouraging it to take the position at the other extreme. A measure of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and some low intensity international concern arguably leads to the most effective deployment and is likely to result in the greatest level of change in China.

Calling China names often isn’t the best method. Using more subtle techniques of diplomacy are more likely to result the same conclusion with lower costs and fewer hurt feelings.


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