By Paul Afshar

What connects Facebook, the New York Times, jasmine flowers, and reincarnation?

It took me three years living in China to understand the answer. They are all banned by the Chinese state, with the exception of the latter which is only permitted if sanctioned by the country’s Communist Party. (Jasmine flowers, of course, representing the movement for democracy in Tunisia.)

The Duchess of Cambridge, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II attend a state banquet in the Ballroom at Buckingham Palace, London
The Duchess of Cambridge, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II attend a state banquet in the Ballroom at Buckingham Palace, London

There’s a simple beauty to understanding how the Chinese state manages information. And it is this — if it can’t be controlled, it is banned.

It was curious, therefore, to observe its PR machine’s palpable gear change ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit this week.

The prologue began with Liu Xioaming, China’s Ambassador to the UK. Taking what some might argue was a “don’t mention the war” approach in advance of the trip, Liu issued the diktat that any issue was on the table. Just not THAT issue. Human rights. China would be “offended” if Cameron, Corbyn or, it would seem, any member of the British press called out the regime’s tragic record on the matter. And so the gauntlet was set.

In what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated love bombing campaign, a small cadre of commentators frothed to celebrate President Xi taking time out of his busy international schedule to bestow gifts on a small island called Britain.

On Monday the Financial Times ran no less than six full page adverts offering a “warm welcome” to our visiting dignitary.  The Communist Party’s English language newspaper, China Daily, was handed out by smiling workers at all of London’s major tube stations.   The Telegraph delivered a pull out supplement of the same paper featuring the important story of Ming, a panda who “helped lift London spirits” in 1937.  Its back page carried an advert from a Chinese liquor brand stating “No distance can keep people with same goals and ideals apart.  It’s an irresistible trend that we together create a flourishing era. May the friendship between UK and China be everlasting.” A tip to the copywriter; next time you spend thousands of pounds on newspaper advertising, don’t use Google Translate to verify your copy.

A Chinese dance group supporting Chinese President Xi Jinping, perform on Parliament Square
A Chinese dance group supporting Chinese President Xi Jinping, perform on Parliament Square

Fast forward to Xi’s arrival and we witness throngs of good looking Chinese students lining Pall Mall, replete with uniform red banners, reading “hello Xi Jinping” in Chinese, and thousands of five starred flags. It was the Guardian’s Peter Walker who spotted the “pro-China” lobby’s flags had arrived in boxes marked as “diplomatic cargo,” bearing China Southern Airline cargo labels.

Yet despite the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg bravely attempting to ask THAT question, human rights were not raised directly with President Xi.  He did not face any embarrassing inquiries into steel dumping, democratic reforms or why, indeed, his government continues to detain the 16-year-old son of a human rights lawyer, Bao Zhuo Xuan.

Quite the opposite. Xi was welcomed, hailed in fact.  A sort of Pablo Escobar figure handing fists of cash to the poor in Medellin (read Britain) to secure their loyalty.  It was a victory for the Chinese PR machine, but a Pyrrhic victory at that.

This triumph of presentation cannot and should not be marked as one of message, nor of engagement.

In China there are two ways to get what you want to say heard.  The first is through controlling the organs of the media, which President Xi’s government does.  The second is through the hong bao, a red envelope in which cash is presented to journalists in return for the scripting of favorable stories.  Although a decreasing practice, in the Middle Kingdom the latter is called PR. We in the UK might diplomatically call it advertising.

And herein lies the rub. The same approach seems to have been applied for President Xi’s visit. Throw enough cash at the problem and you’ll make it go away. Carefully stage-manage the event through white tie dinners and Vuvuzelas, and you’ll drown out dissent.

It may seem contrite, awfully cynical in fact, to talk about a “PR lesson” from this episode when prisoners languish in Chinese black jails for crimes of conscience.  In fact the lesson is not for Xi’s government, for I have no doubt that it cares little on this front.  It is for the individual or agency that presumably advised them on this trip.  Ours is a country where, I hope, the argument is won not through papering over the cracks with expensive broadsheet adverts, but through engagement and dialogue.

Those three years in China taught me one simple truth. There, when you can’t distract from the problem or issue, you pay for it to go away.  Not here.

Paul Afshar ran a successful e-commerce startup in China, selling it last year to return to the UK. He now consults for corporations looking to improve their reputation in the region. He can be contacted @paulrezaafshar

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