Brief: Hangzhou, China hosts the G20 summit on 4 Sept. 2016. Despite various human rights groups’ insistence that world leaders utilize this opportunity to confront the PRC on unresolved humanitarian issues, the PRC has insisted that members of the G20 avoid sensitive topics or international disputes. Expect world leaders to comply.
Implications: The PRC has many diplomatic and authoritarian tools at their disposal to coarse both diplomats and the Chinese populous to self-censor and avoid confronting Party leaders on sensitive issues. China watchers — take note of the classic tools that PRC diplomats employ to shoot down those to criticize the Party: “XXX has hurt the feelings of China“, saving face, displaying moral rectitude, invoking China’s humiliation by the West, “XXX does not understand China”, and more.
Analysis: Refurbishing the city of Hangzhou is a clear reminder that image is a critical tool of the PRC. While any novice China watcher can see through the thin veil of deception of abnormally clear blue skies and newly completed infrastructure projects, the value in the PRC’s “performance of normality” and creating facades for diplomats is more complex. The value in Hangzhou’s makeover is not deception. Instead, it lies in the PRC’s preemption of deniability and the ability to embarrass nay-sayers.
“While many governments recognize Beijing’s abusive trends, few are willing to consider leveling meaningful consequences in response, often privately lamenting their lack of leverage.” —Sophie Richardson
Saving face, and the taboo of offending the PRC is one of many effective tools that Party leaders utilize to circumvent touchy issues by shaming interlocutors in response. For a foreign diplomat to suggest that the PRC, the events that happen within it, or the actions of the Party, are something other than what the official Party line says it is, becomes an invitation for rebuke.
Instead of walking into this trap, diplomats should implore the PRC to act more responsible on issues where there is common ground (like global warming or contributing to humanitarian relief efforts) and where the PRC’s actions are measurable and accountable. Accountability is a critical component to this, as the PRC’s capacity to deny that they have not given their full effort to meet a shared goal is still possible.
Foreign diplomats should become familiar with the types of tools that the PRC employs, preempt them, and use them to their advantage. By example, when suggesting that “reducing air pollution” should become common ground for cooperation, one should fully expect the PRC’s response to be: “China is a developing country, and the West freely polluted for hundreds of years without consequence, we deserve the same right”. By preempting this response, diplomats should invoke the PRC’s status as “a developed and responsible country that has lifted millions out of poverty“. Given that this is the kind of image the PRC wants to promote, playing off of the inherent contradictions in their various narratives can be used to one’s advantage.