China’s attempts to control the impression that the world has of China at the Beijing Winter Olympics is clumsy compared to propaganda used by the U.S. during the First World War.
Back then, the U.S. showed how reporters and can be recruited to carry positive messages around the world.
China is making a mistake by increasing the control and intimidation of reporters.
Unlike the last time when Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, visiting reporters will not be able to travel around either the country or the city itself, but will instead be confined to a “closed loop” bubble with limited interaction even with athletes taking part in the Games.
According to a report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China:
“The Chinese state continues to find new ways to intimidate foreign correspondents, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom the foreign press seeks to interview, via online trolling, physical assaults, cyber hacking, and visa denials.”
The U.S. successfully overcame resistance to the First World War by using public relations techniques.
In 1917, the U.S. had joined the Allied forces in defeating Germany. But Americans had voted for President Woodrow Wilson because he had promised to keep them out of war. Recent immigrants and radical working-class organizations viewed the war as an imperialist rivalry between states that served industrial elites.
To overcome the opposition to the war, Wilson hired public opinion guru Walter Lippmann to gain national and international support for the war.
“Wilson used his executive power to establish the Committee on Public Information (CPI) for the purpose of rallying US and world opinion to the cause of defeating Germany and promoting the supremacy of the United States’ liberal democratic capitalist ideals (Hearts and Mines, Tanner Mirrlees).”
The head of the CPI said: “recognition of Public Opinion as a major force” made the First World War different “from previous conflicts in that it necessitated a “fight for the minds of men, for the conquest of their convictions. There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ,”
One of the targets in the public relations exercise was the foreign-language press. The CPI opened press offices in every world capital. The federal agency also provided war correspondents with its own content.
The CPI brought reporters from around the world to the U.S. so they might “see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears,” the power and resolve of the United States.
While travelling the U.S., the foreign newsmakers sent home daily reports by cable and by mail, and on returning home, they wrote glowing news articles and lectured to promote U.S. aims.
Importantly, because these journalists were not directly affiliated with the U.S. government, their depiction of the United States seemed more credible and trustworthy. Every column carried weight because it came from the pen of a writer in whom the readers had confidence.
China’s attempt to harass and intimidate reporters at the Beijing Winter Olympics is counterproductive from a public relations point of view. It will simply reinforce the impression that the West has of a country under siege.