It isnt as preposterous an idea as it might sound: if
China had been sincere about its desire to rebrand last November, SARS could
have been dealt with in a far more responsible way. But as things stand, the
Chinese reputation has been harmed
Jack Yan is founder and CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and
president of JY&A Consulting.
ONE OF THE PERKS to being a citoyen du monde with national and ethnic
claims to different parts of the globe is that you can criticize more without
people saying you’re being envious. Seriously, the real perk is being able to
judge nations and people on the things that matter: not finance but human relationships;
and living in the first world, seeing what is possible not just for the well-off,
but for everyone.
It’s disheartening when you notice how some have issues with
freedom and honour that prevent them from being first-world players.
Last month, we featured my book review of Simon Anholt’s Brand
New Justice: the Upside of Global Branding, which seeks to remedy the imbalance
in our global society. In short, poorer countries can fast-track their growth
by adopting branding practices. It is early 2003’s most powerful answer to Naomi
Klein’s No Logo challenge, written objectively with no bias toward the
I believe in Simon’s aim, which is why I’ve allowed others
to republish that article for free. And in Brand New Justice, he touches
upon place branding, an issue that is quite close to my own interests.
Recently, I was asked, for a Ph.D. thesis, what the elements
of nation branding are. I replied:
Attitudinal, expressive, idealistic and social. … Attitudinal expresses
the underlying approach which the other brand elements should take (e.g. boundless
…). This is the "why" of the nation brand. Expressive encompasses
the means by which the nation brand is communicated (e.g. graphic elements,
types of media, which may include museum exhibits or philately, as mentioned,
that are compatible with the approach)—the "what". It is important
because arts’ movements, including film and the like, should be considered at
the nation brand level. Idealistic is the targets which the nation brand
should head towards (e.g. shifting stereotypes to a "new reality"
that the country should achieve internally and then externally). The social
dimension, finally, are the social programmes that need to come into play if
the brand is to be a success—such as the freedom I mentioned earlier and the
respect of cultures.
That last one, the social dimension, is probably the most
important. There’s evidence to say that the more limited the freedom, the less
affluent the people can become. And since the connotations of a nation brand
are founded upon the reality of the social fabric, then the other three elements
feed off this social aspect.
Since all nation branding messages are positive, how much
can you do when the reality is negative—without lying and creating a brand that
has as much desire as Enron and Edsel?
This was a significant reason I wrote two years ago how Chinese
WTO entry was unlikely to change branding. The Chinese Politburo’s handling
of the SARS incident is a good example that despite the cosmetic changes of
leadership at the top level, the mechanisms have remained largely the same.
As most now know, China knew about SARS as early as November
2002 but kept a lid on it. And their diplomats were more than happy to carry
on the charade.
In New Zealand in early April, before the admission of SARS
infections in Beijing, a delegation from the capital was sent home, which prompted
the usual, expected Communist outburst from the Chinese Ambassador, HE Chen
Ming Ming, with whom his host government sided.
I found Mr Chen a very undiplomatic diplomat when I met him
in 2001 and was unsurprised that he was willing to tow the party line. His public
rebuke of the Hoover Institution and me was done in line with the foreign affairs’
equivalent of aggressive football hooliganism. It was a dramatic failing of
his task to foster a positive image of his nation.
Now we know differently about SARS: Beijing was affected.
His Excellency and the left-leaning New Zealand government should have egg on
WTO entry seems excessively academic in light of how the same
old cover-ups still carry on and the Chinese people do not have the freedom
that they deserve.
In late 2002, JY&A Consulting was approached by a Chinese
consultancy. I pointed out the problems I have with the state. The consultancy’s
response was that my impressions were dated and that they were shocked I held
China, I was told, was a vastly changed country and that everything
was running smoothly. It was not the repressed régime that Mr Chen’s
manner had led me to believe.
The Ambassador’s fellow nationals could have benefited from
a potential western alliance but for the consequence of his earlier impertinence
and my refusal to look through rose-coloured glasses. We, in the outside world,
need to be convinced of China’s authenticity.
This was, in one case, the problem for MG Rover’s alliance
with automaker China Brilliance that we covered earlier. Good on paper, but
with state influence in companies strong, how real was China Brilliance’s commitment?
I should even point out how the Communist régime even
has human rights’ declarations and property ownership provisions in its laws.
Simon mentions Haier in his book. It has a German-sounding
name, but is in fact a Chinese whitegoods’ manufacturer. While I mightn’t have
questioned Haier before I learned of its origins, I do now. It’s not because
I am concerned about Chinese workmanship or technology. I am concerned about
Haier’s workers, how well they are treated, the freedom they have, and whether
the company might one day disappear if an unelected Communist Party official
in Beijing decides to have a bad day.
Being an optimist, I hope that the lesson the Politburo has
learned from SARS this will lead to some real change. There have been some concessions,
such as the sackings of the mayor of Beijing and the national health policy
committee head—showing that at a high level, it’s willing to make some moves,
or find scapegoats. The foreign news services have shown that the hospitals
are taking things seriously. Schools have been closed and a million kids have
been told to stay home, at the time of writing.
With a partial change of leadership, China talked about ‘rebranding
the Communist Party’ in November 2002 on the BBC. Apart from sounding initially
laughable, this would be one of the greatest exercises yet. It would mean researching
Chinese opinion leaders—and by that I include people who may have been repressed
to date—and get them to speak freely on their views without fear of punishment.
The Politburo needs to hear their views and decide upon how to shift from its
current position to a desired one that makes the nation brand idealistic. It
needs to understand the exchange of duties advocated by Confucius: if this could
build China into the most advanced economy in the world one millennium ago,
when it was ruled by emperors whose positions were seen as being granted by
a mandate of Heaven, then it is an inherently Chinese solution that could give
power and freedom to the Chinese people. The Communist Party needs to understand
it has nothing to fear from this freedom to create a new brand for China. For
The ingenuity and great heritage of the Chinese people could
then resurface. The Chinese biotech sector, for a start, could really grow.
Then, I might admit that WTO entry is going to move China into the 21st century
as a powerhouse economy.
With all that, we can avoid another SARS. Therefore, the business
world won’t be the only ones benefiting. One billion Chinese won’t be the only
ones benefiting. This could be a good thing, globally.
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