Ryan J. Suto's Blog

05 January 2012

Beijing’s New Year’s Eve Diplomacy?

This year for our New Year’s Eve festivities, my girlfriend and I decided to finally go to Times Square to watch the ball drop. It was a lot of fun. However, I couldn’t help but see certain festivities in the light of public diplomacy.

To start, I’ll let the Times Square site describe the events:

Opening Ceremonies – Chinese Cultural Performance, Lion Dance
 The Sino-American Friendship Association (“SAFA”) presents a spectacular Chinese cultural performance of the Lion Dance to begin the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration on the Nivea Countdown Stage at Duffy Island between 46th and 47th Streets. The Lion Dance is a popular Chinese New Year tradition bringing good luck in the upcoming year. The SAFA President, Peter Zhang and Executive Vice-President Li Li will be joined by Tim Tompkins, President of the Times Square Alliance to participate in the eye dotting ceremony that awakens the spirit of the Lion prior to the start of the Lion Dance. The Lion Dance will conclude with red and gold pyrotechnic effects atop One Times Square.

Before the performance and display, representatives from the Sino-American Friendship Association spoke of a desire for a strong friendship between China and the U.S., as well as China’s strong culture. Also representatives from the city of Beijing noted that Beijing and New York are sister cities, and spoke of the beauty and history of Beijing. Lastly, employees or volunteers of the Times Square Alliance handed out tourist maps of Beijing to the audience. I obviously had to grab one for research for this important blog post.

While I didn’t hear the group from Pittsburg in front, the group from Japan to the side, or the couple from Australia behind us say it, the whole time I was thinking, is this public diplomacy? It certainly felt like public diplomacy. However, it was presented as a collaboration between the tourism bureau of a city and a (presumably) non-profit organization, neither being a national government (of course I don’t know whether the Chinese national government was involved at all).

While I have discussed models of public diplomacy elsewhere, I think the question of whether this constitutes public diplomacy is unique. From the point of view of the SAFA, this is merely issue advocacy, at best cultural diplomacy. From the point of view of the government of Beijing, this is merely tourism advertising, at best public relations. While these things are all related to public diplomacy, they aren’t public diplomacy. But, does the label public diplomacy inherently depend on the intent of the utterer? Or, does it merely depend on the nature of the utterance? Or, even perhaps the point of view of the observers of the utterance?

Here, I think we have a coordinated effort by different entities which have different, but aligned, goals. The SAFA would like positive sentiments toward China and Chinese among Americans, while Beijing would like to increase the desire of Americans to visit Beijing and spend money in their city. Using the definition of public diplomacy I have used elsewhere (public diplomacy is the image of a state or its people, as maintained by a government, organization, or people, and held by international publics), both goals (positive sentiments and the desire to visit a foreign place) are clearly public diplomacy goals. To say that this utterance was outside the definition and scope of public diplomacy would be an artificially narrow conception of the idea.

Thus, I assert that in order for an action or utterance to be considered public diplomacy, the action or utterance itself must be coordinated and intentional, and have goals in line with the definition, concepts, and values of public diplomacy. The actor or utterer needn’t consciously decide to engage in public diplomacy as such, merely consciously decide to engage in actions which could reasonably be construed as public diplomacy. As such, the New Year's Eve actions and utterances by Beijing and the SAFA does constitute public diplomacy.

Thanks for reading. I’m wondering how much of all this was broadcast on TV or the internet? I’m wondering how many of you out there saw this and have thoughts about it. I look forward to your comments.

P.S. Chinese New Year is January 23rd this year.

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