Anyone who was living in China in the early 1990s will remember that day in September 1993 when the International Olympic Committee met in Monte Carlo to announce the site of the 2000 Olympiad. Nominally the competition was between Sydney and Beijing, but in reality Beijing’s bid had mobilised the whole country. Public parks throughout China were decorated with the Olympic rings. Tens of millions of schoolchildren had spent months writing essays about the spirit of the torch, and committing the names and accomplishments of famous Olympians to memory. I was at the time teaching English in a small college in Shandong, and when the decision for Sydney was announced, my students wept. Sydney’s attractions aside, what was obvious to all was that denying China the games was an admonition that the world had neither forgotten nor forgiven the events of June 1989.
Compare this to Jiang Zemin’s highly successful visit to the United States in 1997. Jiang was affable but not conciliatory – he joked with manufacturing executives, signed three billion dollars worth of procurement contracts with Boeing, and spoke off-script when defending his government in an address at Harvard. The Western press swooned at what they universally termed Jiang’s ‘charm offensive’. The dividends came later. Thanks in part to this new image, the US gradually muted its opposition to China’s accession to the WTO, and just over two years later granted China the status of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR).
The Chinese government has clearly understood the importance of image and, over the years, has taken an increasingly systemic approach to public relations. It hired the American PR firm Weber Shandwick to advise on its failed Olympic bid and contracted Hill & Knowlton to manage publicity for the 2008 games. But while the government was content to outsource public relations for one-off events like the Olympics, China’s deeper image problem required a homegrown response.
The China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP 中国浦东干部学院) is designed to make an impression. Opened five years ago in a relatively empty section of Shanghai’s new financial district, the campus is a ramshackle collection of modernist buildings jutting out of a meticulously manicured landscape of man-made hills, streams and bamboo groves. The schizophrenic design of the central building gives away the nature of the enterprise: from the outside, a chic façade of structural glass and steel cables says Wharton MBA, while the interior of monumental marble and plush red carpet has the more familiar feel of a cadre training school.
When I visited CELAP this May as part of an Australian government study tour, we were treated to three hours of confident, even aggressive delivery of a systemically crafted narrative. Each of the morning’s three presenters spoke in the same style: talking without notes, using a wireless microphone, and pacing out the space in the center of the U-shaped tables to dominate the room in a manner reminiscent of Steve Jobs announcing a new iPhone. Delivery was remarkably smooth. Clearly each speaker had given the same talk dozens or hundreds of times before – jokes, asides, and even gestures were carefully rehearsed and scripted. The speakers commanded the room not just physically but also discursively. When the third speaker was momentarily unable to recall the term for a certain type of taxation, the others quickly jumped in, showing just how well they had mastered each other’s talks, and precluding the intrusion of even a moment of silence. This included the final few minutes reserved for questions, which speakers answered with one of a number of set responses – dazzling the listener while winding down the clock.
The content of the talks was tailored to fit the language and expectations of business executives and efficiency experts. Beyond the usual themes of China’s harmonious civilisation and cultural predilection towards trust between government and the people, speakers emphasised the elements that they expected would appeal to a Western audience. They painted an entirely implausible picture of political plurality in China, highlighting the legal existence of organized opposition parties, the importance of parliamentary debate in the legislative process, and the autonomy enjoyed by ethnic minorities. At the same time, they emphasised the efficiency and vision of Chinese corporatism, in contrast to an image of Western economies as plagued by indecision and unable to see beyond the next market cycle. The coherence of the narrative demanded a somewhat selective use of facts. Restrictions on Google and Facebook were explained solely in terms of protecting public morality, with no mention of the vast resources devoted to purging anti-government commentary from social media, nor of the vast markets that more compliant service providers such as Tencent and Sina (of QQ and Weibo, respectively) have been able to capture in these companies’ absence. The decision by the Ministry of Commerce to reject Sichuan Tengzhong’s purchase of Hummer was presented as evidence of China’s commitment to green technology, rather than of the American SUV manufacturer’s fairly awful financial position and poor prospects of ever regaining market share in the US. Politically, the message was that we are just like you; economically, it was that we are better.
Of course every country will expect to hear the official line from its own representatives, which in China includes everyone from ambassadors abroad to lowly tour guides at the Great Wall. Schools like CELAP are doing something more. As we prepared to depart, executive vice-president Feng Jun remarked that he and many of the others at CELAP had spent time at the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. The connection goes both ways – many of the city-state’s ideological proponents, from Thomas Friedman to Kishore Mahbubani (not to mention Lee Kwan Yew himself), have visited and spoken at CELAP.
There does seem to be more than a cosmetic similarity between the two schools, both in what they do and what they stand for. Like its Singapore counterpart, CELAP trains specialists and conducts analysis in areas of real policy significance, such as resource management, finance and health care. But it has also followed Singapore’s example in building itself into a networking center, a platform for power to speak to power. More than a few global leaders have included CELAP in their itineraries – Julia Gillard used her recent visit there to discuss trade, and the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. As such, the school fills a particular niche in China’s larger quest for influence. While Confucius Institutes aim to present China’s political narrative to students and the public at large, everything about CELAP (including the decision to translate ganbu 干部 as ‘executive leader’ instead of ‘cadre’) is designed specifically to reach the international political and business elite. The remarkable uniformity of the three CELAP speakers, both in content and in style, shows that this and other schools are training China’s new cadre of image executives on an industrial scale.
The author is a Senior Research Fellow in Chinese History, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.