With regard to what I called Earthquake Diplomacy, the flip side of the coin is the image management possibilities for the authorities of the country struck by the natural disaster. On the far side of the unfavorable range of the spectrum, you’ll find the Burma monsoon. Of course, Hurricane Katrina and the French heat wave of 2003 didn’t do either country any favors in terms of its public image, either. (I think reaction to the French heat wave, though, was more a global sense of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” than outrage and horror. I had actually left France that summer for Dallas, Texas, where I was managing a poorly air-conditioned, low-income apartment complex throughout the 100°+ summer, and all summer long friends asked me incredulously, “They die of the heat in France? Don’t they have air-conditioning?” The answers are respectively, Yes, and no.)
Be all that as it may, consensus had it that China did a great job, not only handling the earthquake that struck Sichuan province, but also handling the media that was handling the story of how China was handling the earthquake that struck Sichuan province. Only thing is, now that the media spotlight has turned elsewhere, some of the less flattering aspects of the story are emerging. Willy Lam has a good rundown over at Jamestown Foundation that’s worth a perusal. I don’t think any of it rises to the level of “Backlash Potential” just yet. But the story seems to reveal a certain fragility with regard to China’s public image that leaves it vulnerable to a rapid reversal of global opinion in these kinds of circumstances. I doubt, for instance, that whatever goodwill China generated from its handling of the earthquake will survive another wave of violent repression in Tibet. And in the event of a negative p.r. cycle in the immediate future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the stuff Lam discusses used as fuel for the fire.
It might be a generalization, but for all of the unpopularity that America suffers from time to time, I think its narrative really strikes a chord, pretty much universally. People want to believe in America, I think, because the story is one they want to believe is possible for them as well. And that means America has a volatile but resilient image whose steady state is sympathetic and compelling. Maybe it’s just a sign of my own bias, but does the Chinese story (and here I’m talking about the state as much as the people) resonate on that kind of level? It strikes me more as a volatile image that returns to a steady state of suspicion and mistrust. In the end, all of that might not really matter, but I think it does.