Diplomacy and Twitter Rants

A Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, Lijian Zhao, recently took to Twitter to criticise US race relations, in response to US criticism of China’s mass detentions of the Muslim Uighur population. After receiving a degree of backlash, including being called racist by former US national security adviser Susan Rice, Zhao then added further critiques of American culture, including gun violence, migrant family separation, and sexual assault.

Zhao deleted his original tweet but doubled down on his previous point, going on to describe the “living conditions of African Americans” as “worrisome”, and highlighting the country’s “endless” school shootings, and women “living in fear” of sexual assault. “Truth hurts. I am simply telling the truth,” he wrote.

Lily Kuo, China’s Envoys try out Trump-Style Twitter diplomacy, The Guardian, 17 July 2019

So, this is where we are now…global politics playing out in Twitter rants. As a political communication researcher who’s been looking at politicians’ Twitter accounts for the past several months, I feel like I should have something substantial to say here, but when I saw the phrase “Trump-style Twitter diplomacy,” I was a bit lost for words. It’s bad enough he does it–now others are copying him? Sigh.

The argument “Well, you do it, too!” is a weak one. It only underscores the notion that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur population is indefensible. It’s not the first time they’ve tried to use this argument, either–since 1998, the Chinese government has been publishing an annual report, The Human Rights Record of the United States, as a rebuttal against U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record.

It’s also not the first time America’s history of racial discrimination and segregation has been used by critics on the international stage. During the Cold War, race relations in the U.S. were a common theme of Soviet propaganda. According to this piece from NYU’s Brennan Center, Soviet officials identified African Americans as having “revolutionary potential” as early as 1928. During the years of anti-Jim Crow activism, the Soviet strategy primarily consisted of simply reprinting factual news that was damaging to the U.S. image abroad.

Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrative about American racism were undercut by the fact that Soviet propaganda typically involved the reprinting and distribution of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Soviets showcased American news outlets’ photographs of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963.

Patel and Koreh, 2018, New Method, Same Strategy: Russia Has Long Exploited US Racial Divisions. Brennan Center for Justice,

Although they misappropriated the civil rights movements’ images for their own purposes, they were right to criticise US race relations. It was true–America did (and does) have problems and picking up on hypocrisy is something that adversaries do best, while allies might turn a blind eye. Zhao is right to say that the US still has problems with race relations, with school shootings, with sexual assault–but America failing in these areas doesn’t justify China’s treatment of the Uighur minority, or any of its other human rights abuses.

And this is the problem with Twitter rant diplomacy. The platform is simplistic, with character limits and re-tweet features that don’t lend themselves well to reasoned deliberation and fact-checking. That’s why Trump and his supporters like it, and that’s why it has such enormous potential for populist leaders who don’t perform as well in more controlled, nuanced media environments. If you don’t like someone, you can block them–and Trump does, frequently, as one of my favorite bloggers found out before he was President.

The whole thing is doubly interesting when you consider the audience for Zhao’s tweets. They’re clearly not for Chinese audiences. Since 2009, Twitter has been blocked in China, because Twitter wouldn’t adhere to the Chinese government’s requirements for censorship and surveillance (their own microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, does have censorship–and self-censorship). Zhao’s tweets were also written in English, which suggests that anglophone global audiences were the target, if not exclusively American audiences. It’s not directed at Pakistan, despite the fact he is based in Islamabad. It’s for the Tweeter-in-Chief and the US administration and its observers to hear.

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Back Where I Come From

It’s been a very ugly week in U.S. politics, with Trump doubling down on his racist tweets about the four progressive American Congresswomen known as The Squad. It was unbelievable, and yet completely typical of him. This Anderson Cooper clip summed it up nicely, pointing out that Trump’s racism is just who he is:

The argument of “If you’re not happy here, you can leave” goes against fundamental American values. In 1776, unhappy colonists didn’t “go back” to Europe–they fought for independence. In 1861, when the Confederate states tried to leave a country they didn’t like, the Union didn’t let them. Suffragettes, labor reformers and civil rights leaders didn’t “just leave”–throughout American history, progressives have stayed right where they are and made the country better.

For my own part, as a white American with British ancestry living in Britain, I kind of did “go back” where I “came from”…And it’s not as easy as it sounds! It’s been a lengthy and expensive process that will never really be over, even if I live here for the rest of my life. Even after 10+ years, I still get asked where I’m from on a regular basis. People mean it in a nice way, (they’re usually just showing a genuine interest in America because they’ve been there or have family there) but it gets old–and I can’t imagine how painful and annoying it must be for long-term residents who are asked that question in a racist/discriminatory way.

China and global higher education

In terms of the global flow of international students, there’s no bigger actor than China–they send hundreds of thousands of students overseas each year (662,100 in 2018) and institutions in the US, UK, Australia and Canada compete for them and the economic benefits and cultural diversity they bring to campus with them. There has been an expansion of higher education opportunities for Chinese students, with more students from ordinary backgrounds pursuing degrees overseas–it’s no longer exclusively for wealthy elites. Chinese students are also increasingly likely to return home after their studies–fears of international higher education contributing to the ‘brain drain’ phenomenon are not reflected in practice.

The Diplomat recently featured an interview with former Ambassador and current VP of International Programs at Washington State University, Dr. Asif Chaudhry. When Dr. Chaudhry was asked about U.S. policymakers’ concerns about Confucius Institutes (CI), his response captured the key elements of the debate very clearly & concisely:

“This can be a very controversial topic because of the potential for conflicts among issues of protecting U.S. interests, principles of academic freedom, and concern over curricular control and Chinese state censorship. In this complex environment, it is important to not lose sight of the value of promoting shared cultural understanding. It seems more productive to ask a somewhat different set of questions: a) is the current CI model the best way to achieve the goals of providing Chinese language learning and Chinese cultural understanding and/or, b) how else can this be done without hosting a CI in an era in which it is crucial to intellectually engage with China and protect the integrity of the goals and values of higher education?”

Dr. Asif Chaudhry, US-Asia Education Exchange: The Impact of Public Diplomacy

I particularly liked his second question, the idea of alternative ways of engaging with China that go beyond the Confucius Institute. Exchanges are an obvious answer, as are overseas campuses that bring Western institutions to mainland China. Last year, the government ended many of its partnerships with foreign universities, but they remain a significant link between Chinese students and Western faculty.

I also liked Dr. Chaudhry’s emphasis on cultural understanding. He connected discussions of U.S. policy towards Asian students to larger questions of cultural exchange and understanding.

“Without exposing U.S. students and scholars to other cultures of the world and vice versa, we cannot ensure a mindful understanding and appreciation of each other in a global economy. Policy decisions that inhibit the free flow of ideas or the ability to interact with each other are ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests at large.”

ibid.

Connecting U.S. interests to international education is a classic way of generating political support–Senator Fulbright did it in the 50’s when he argued for exchange funding as part of a larger Cold War strategy. Today, it might be the global economy instead–very important, especially in light of Trump’s trade war with China. American policymakers worry about the impact of Confucius Institutes, but the trade war has much more immediate, tangible effects that are worth worrying about.

Overtourism: our “Bucket List”-checking, Instagramming Problem

An article recently appeared in The Atlantic about the problem of “overtourism”, with the headline “Too Many People Want to Travel“. The problems raised by an increased volume of tourism are serious, and the article mentions several examples, from the recent deaths on Mount Everest, due to overcrowding, to environmental damage. In the news, too, we see a range of problems facing popular tourist destinations. Last week a cruise ship crashed into a Venice dock, just the most recent offense in a longer trend of the city’s “low quality tourism” problem.

Overtourism is caused, in part, by the cultural factors of checking off ‘bucket lists’ (and the best-selling book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die) and social media being used to share travel photos. When you visit the Louvre, you must take a picture of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, even though it looks just like you thought it would, and everybody else is holding their phone up, straining to get a picture of the dark, small portrait.

This is what it looks like in real life–La Gioconda, surrounded by people taking selfies with her

The article points out that Instagram, Yelp and TripAdvisor are amongst the social media platforms contributing to overtourism.

“Social media are at work, too, with apps such as Instagram leading tourists to pitch over cliffs and clog vital roadways in search of the perfect pic, and sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor making restaurants, museums, and beaches discoverable and thus ruinable. Overtourism itself is a media phenomenon as much as it is anything else.”

Annie Lowrey (2019), Too Many People Want to Travel, The Atlantic, 4 June

The idea that travelling is being ruined by photography predates Instagram–Susan Sontag’s essays On Photography talked about the shaping of tourism since the early days of the medium.

“It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had…Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.”

Susan Sontag, 1977, In Plato’s Cave, On Photography, p. 6.

My initial reaction to the headline was to think that it was very classist. It’s unfair to the blame these problems on the people who can now afford to travel, whereas in the past they simply couldn’t afford to do so. It’s not as though these masses didn’t want to travel before, and now Instagram has inspired them to hop on a flight. A range of macroeconomic developments has made it possible for them to travel more. And now that they can, they’re ‘ruining it’–it’s become too ‘common’, the critics are saying.

It reminded me of the snobbery towards tourists in A Room With a View, E.M. Forster’s Edwardian classic about English tourists in Florence. When the local Anglican chaplain Mr. Eager asks the heroine if she’s in Florence as a student of art, she replies that she is a tourist.

“Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little–handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl.”

Mr. Eager, A Room With a View, Chapter 6
I love a good Merchant-Ivory adaptation…

The overtourism panic sounds like the snobbish views of Mr. Eager, who looks down on tourists from a privileged position as an expat and mocks their guidebook-recommended itineraries as being superficial and inauthentic. This kind of attitude dismisses the idea that tourism has value, both for the travellers and the travel industry. It pours money into an area–it does so in an imbalanced and seasonal way, perhaps, but try telling those whose jobs depend on tourism that fewer people should be travelling.

It contributes to culture learning and exposes visitors to new ideas, new food, new ways of life. The expansion in the number of people travelling, broadening it beyond just the few elites who could afford it, means more people get to experience these things. Some might be nostalgic for the early days of commercial air travel, when every seat was first class and people dressed up, but that’s a classist attitude that suggests things were better when average, working class people were priced out. The cheap airlines and holiday package deals might be causing problems, but they’re also making travel accessible to more people–and in a late-capitalist culture where we’ve been told we should value travel and ‘experiences not stuff’, how can that be wrong?

Lowrey acknowledges this side in the conclusion, admitting that the increase in tourism has some positive impacts as well.

These phenomena inevitably mean more complaints from locals, and more damage and lines and selfies and bad behavior. But they also mean more cross-cultural exposure, more investment, more global connection, more democratization of travel, and perhaps more awe and wonder. Even overtourism has its upsides.

Lowrey (2019)

While I readily acknowledge the negative aspects (especially the carbon footprint), I still think that ultimately, more people seeing more of the world is a good thing.

Campaigning in Spanish: se habla español, pero conoce el votante latino?

This morning I saw a great BBC video on the use of Spanish in US Presidential campaigning, and whether it’s genuine outreach to Latino voters, or just lip service. The use of Spanish language material in campaigns is nothing new–I remember George W. Bush’s slow, heavily accented attempts (though his English wasn’t always very fluent either), Tim Kaine‘s more confident delivery of Trump takedowns en español, and even Jackie Kennedy spoke Spanish in an advert for JFK’s campaign in 1960.

While it seems like a lovely gesture, is it an empty one? As the BBC video points out, candidates attempts at speaking Spanish do not necessarily mean anything in terms of policy or genuine outreach. It may also be a bit annoying to bilingual Latinos and Latinos who are only fluent in English (like the only Latino candidate, Julián Castro, who is not actually fluent in Spanish).

What can candidates do to reach out to Latino voters, besides putting their English-language website into Google Translate (as the video suggests two of the current candidates did)? Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Address the Latina pay gap: In the US, Latina women earn 53 cents for every dollar a white man earns.
  2. Make higher education more accessible and affordable: the college enrollment rate for Hispanic students has risen in recent years, but they are still less likely than other demographics to enroll in four-year and selective institutions.
  3. Healthcare: Like most Americans, Latinos want a better healthcare system. “In 2014, 26.5% of Hispanics were uninsured as compared to 10.4% of non-Hispanics under age 65. The gap was higher for persons aged 65 and over: 4.4% among Hispanics, compared with 0.5% among [non-Hispanic Whites].” (Velasco-Mondragon et al., 2016)
  4. Combat pollution and climate change: A recent study found inequality in air pollution generation/consumption in the U.S. “[A]ir pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.” (NPR story, original study here: Tessum et al., 2019)
  5. Gun control: In the current era of frequent mass shootings in the U.S., Latino voters generally support gun control legislation. “Hispanic registered voters nationally say they prefer gun control over the rights of owners by a margin of 62%-to-36%, as do black registered voters by a margin of 71%-to-26%, according to the survey. By contrast, white registered voters choose gun owners’ rights over gun control by a margin of 59%-to-39%.” (Pew survey)

The important thing for candidates to remember is to actually listen (don’t just assume you know what issues matter to them) and to not take voting blocs for granted (remember to go to Wisconsin and Michigan this time).  ¡Sí se puede!

US Soft Power Reassessed

Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:

From: Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter and Janell Fetterolf, U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership, Pew Research Center, 26 June 2017, p. 4

It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.

Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.

“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”

From: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, Project Syndicate, 6 May 2019

Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.

I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.

What I’m Reading

Image result for becoming

Michelle Obama’s memoir was the book of 2018–even before Oprah picked it for her book club, it was a huge bestseller. I added it to my wishlist as a pre-order, and my sister and I both bought it for each others’ birthdays in Nov/Dec! I’m about halfway through, and I adore it. She’s a fantastic writer and storyteller, and her tone is everything you’d expect from her. She’s brilliant yet relatable, down to earth yet Ivy League educated. Her stories of the South Side of Chicago and her youth outreach work make you realise how much untapped talent there is out there, how many brilliant people don’t get the opportunities that would enable them to shine–and how many people like her are doing inspiring, empowering work that never gets heard about because they don’t happen to be married to Presidents.

Oprah once said that whatever you do, to be excellent and “make excellence your brand”. Michelle’s behind-the-scenes account shows that the Obama family did just that–they knew that as the first African-American First Family, they had to be excellent, that one slip could undermine them and that they would be even more vulnerable to criticism than other First Families. The Obamas succeeded. No scandals, no corruption, no slip-ups. Michelle is relieved to be out of the White House, but the millions of people around the world now reading her book can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Obama White House’s excellence.