Public Diplomacy: Trying to Pigeonhole Deutsche Welle’s Chinese Department

[John Brown] [correction: Robin Brown], from Leeds, tried to identify four distinct ways of thinking about external communication, and – for the time being, as I understand it – came up with four paradigms (click this link to see all four of them).

This brings several initial thoughts about Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) to my mind, basically in this context. (To be clear, Brown’s post itself is not about Deutsche Welle – it’s about public diplomacy as a concept.)

In an interview in January, former Deutsche Welle editor Wang Fengbo said that

since later 2008 the Chinese department has actually been  working not only against the Chinese authorities (doing so is legitimate, of course), but unfortunately also against the majority of its should-be recipients.

I can’t tell if the Welle works against the majority of potential Chinese listeners, or if the latter simply feel this way about the broadcaster (which I believe many of them do). I’m rather trying to use Mr. Brown’s warfare categories to pigeonhole Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department. Two of his categories or paradigms seem to be particularly relevant here*).

Paradigm #4:

Political Warfare (ideological conflict?).  PD is a matter of defeating an ideological opponent or spreading a set of political values.  One aspect of this paradigm is that PD should be separated from the work of the foreign ministry because the MFA is too wedded to the niceties of diplomacy.

Political warfare, as apparently quoted or indirectly reflected by Wikipedia from On Political War,

[..] is the use of political means to compel an opponent to do one’s will, based on hostile intent. The term political describes the calculated interaction between one’s government and a target audience to include another country’s government, military, and/or general population. Governments use a variety of techniques to coerce certain actions, thereby gaining relative advantage over an opponent. The techniques include propaganda and psychological operations (PSYOP), which service national and military objectives respectively. Propaganda has many aspects, to include words and images, with a hostile and coercive political purpose. Psychological operations are for strategic and tactical military objectives and may be intended for hostile military and civilian populations.

Obviously, there is quite a range between PSYOP and advocating values. But in my view, the question begins to matter if Deutsche Welle’s 2008 critics viewed members of the broadcaster’s Chinese department as enemies – some of them most  probably did. It may also begin to matter if Deutsche Welle itself sees members or former members of the Chinese department as people within the ranks of the enemy.

PSYOP is hardly a fitting label. The Welle’s contacts within the federal government are the Federal Commissioner of Culture and Media when federal funding is the issue, and the foreign office in particular when public diplomacy is the issue – by non-binding, formal and informal intercommunication (“unverbindliche, formelle und informelle Austauschprozesse”) between Deutsche Welle and the “political arena”, particularly the foreign office. Defense or intelligence don’t seem to matter.

Christian Michalek, an author who described these exchanges and contacts between Deutsche Welle on the one hand, and the federal government and federal parliament on the other, also pointed out that Deutsche Welle representatives he interviewed maintained that a journalist’s primary task should be to transmit news, and that a task of generating interest in, appreciation of, or understanding of Germany – as well as presenting the Federal Republic as a role model (Vorbild) – should only come second.

This concept would seem to fit into Brown’s paradigm #3:

Cultural Relations. In this version our external communications are part of an effort that will lead to  a transformation of overall relations with other countries though the development of cultural relations.  The concern is with medium and long term processes. The emphasis on the cultural is also reflected in an argument for the autonomy of this activity from the day to day influence of foreign policy. Within the cultural relations paradigm we can see a continuum between exporting our culture and a genuine mutuality.

From what I know so far, Deutsche Welle would fit into category #4, as far as spreading a set of political values is concerned. Category #3 hardly applies here. There is no genuine mutuality involved, as #3 would prescribe. Genuine mutuality would amount “Being yourself”, as a journalist, in this case, to do what you are best at: covering current affairs, breaking news, and – ideally – investigating news stories further. It would be about being a professional journalist. Covering news, according to surveys quoted by Michalek, is what journalists all over Germany, beyond Deutsche Welle, see as their main task, anyway.

There are many people in China who could relate to that approach, and I agree with Mr. Wang here. Chinese people are interested in reliable coverage, even if its news that puts China’s political system into a very unfavorable light. This doesn’t need to  exclude strongly-worded editorials, but they would need to be kept separate from news coverage. Rather than a “Let-us-introduce-ourselves-we-are-the-good-guys-who-are-telling-you-what’s-wrong-with-you-if-you-disagree-with-us” agency, Deutsche Welle might be seen as people who do their job professionally.

And still, Deutsche Welle would need to be aware of a crucial thing, even in a more ideal situation: there are journalists in China who truly stick their neck out as they are breaking news, and investigating stories. As journalists, rather than activists, they  show much more courage than the average German reporter – and (I suppose) gain much more trust from their readers. When you have courageous papers and reporters in your own country (China), you won’t need to look abroad (Germany) for role models.

But Deutsche Welle could provide information that is strictly censored in China – even the most freedom-minded paper in China can’t circumvent the propaganda departments’ directives and bans if the department insists on them. That’s a gap Deutsche Welle could try to fill.

What the Welle would need for that approach, however, would be a federal parliament whose members backs the broadcaster with their long-term commitment. Genuine quality and corresponding trust can’t be whipped into being under ideological, rather than journalistic guidelines (the Welle appears to be trying the latter approach on its Chinese department). Continuous improvement, rather than political warfare in a wider sense, would require a long-term approach, and long-term funding.



*) Categories 1 and 2 may matter, too – #1 for the Welle’s exchanges with the German political arena, and #2 for the desired and undesired effects the Chinese department’s work may have in the target area. But #3 and #4 seem to constitute alternatives which should be – mostly – mutually exclusive.



8 Responses to “Public Diplomacy: Trying to Pigeonhole Deutsche Welle’s Chinese Department”

  1. Sir, The Brown to whom you refer has the first name of Robin, not John. I did have the pleasure of citing Robin’s article in my Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review. Best, John Brown


  2. Corrected – thanks!


  3. Ich musste mir meine Sockenpuppen immer selber basteln…


  4. Really interesting post. The four positions are very simplistic but I think they do capture positions that recur in debates about public diplomacy type activities. For real existing organizations there may be balance between different positions so arguments and positions recur – for instance in American Cold War broadcasting. One aspect of this is that you might think that you are doing cultural relations but are seen by the people on the receiving end as actually doing politcal warfare – at least from the point of view of governments.

    I was thinking about picking up the question of international broadcasting on my own blog.




  5. The four positions may be simplistic – and I’ll keep watching if and how you will re-arrange them -, but they are apparently helpful in categorizing forein broadcasters, for example. That’s how I gave the paradigm a try.

    As for the Voice of America, even dissidents, at least Roy Medvedev (now a Putin supporter, I believe) disapproved of the hardline approach the Voice took during the Reagan years. But as far as the audience, rather than the CPSU is concerned, most of them probably felt that Willis Conover‘s Jazz Hour was genuine cultural relations (even if it was practically one-way, rather than mutual). That said, one may argue that at least in part, it was actually meant to be nation branding. Maybe that’s what it inevitably becomes, once a cultural-relation approach resonates strongly with the audience.

    Category 4 may fit too many different sizes though. After all, advocating values can hardly count as war (even if those who dislike the values in question may feel that way).



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