By winning the support of more than two-thirds of member nations, Margaret Chan scored a coup for her country and became the first Chinese person to head a United Nations organization. (Assuming, of course, that this is a good thing.)
China is actively looking for hoops to jump through to gain the respect of the international community. Its sheer size and growing economic power already give it a certain amount of clout but it has yet to make the shift away from nouveau riche. At least in the eyes of the Western world, China lacks trustworthiness.
The country has much clout among he developing world but that’s easy. It is basically for sale. China, the world’s fourth-largest economy, has money to spend, a need for raw resources and plenty savvy businesspeople who feel right at home in the legal limbos of often corrupt autocratic regimes. Like people who win a lottery, China has found itself with plenty of new – but poorer – friends.
What China doesn’t yet have, because it can’t really buy it, is the respect of the old money: Namely Western Europe and the US. (For the time being, let’s count the US as old, or old-ish, money or at least the well-established offspring of a successful entrepreneur.)
In the fickle realm of public opinion, appearance counts; public relations is a matter of perception. China’s problem is it is very bad at it.
Beijing has been generally very successful at garnering support internally, but on the world stage its lack of PR savvy shows.
The US is renowned for its ability to spin. It has spun a couple of invasions and a quasi-legal prison in Cuba with some success – given the nature of the incidents. It has done it with half-truths and partial access.
Outright and risible denials just don’t cut it.
A few weeks ago, China’s deputy commissioner in Hong Kong, Xie Xiaoyan, was asked during a talk at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club about recent cases in which Chinese courts have imprisoned journalists after closed-door trials.
"China is a country ruled by law," he said, adding that the judiciary is independent. He could not, however, name a single case in which a journalist was actually acquitted by this independent judiciary.
Xie stuck to his guns, reality be damned.
In China, this happens all too often. Officials and spokespeople stick to lines that obviously lack truth. The obvious lies are the worst PR move.
Chan, in her opening speech at the WHO, said she will leave behind her citizenship but Beijing footed the bill for her candidacy. It is going to want some return on its investment. This may require Chan to develop a mode of communication Chinese officials have so far bypassed, one that requires independent thinking and an ability to navigate a curvy and subtle path.