Can China do soft power? Poorly organised yet tightly controlled forum raises questions

  • Major diplomatic conference lacked a clear schedule and sufficient content, some attendees complain
  • Tight media control meanwhile made it difficult for China to project openness, a theme at the belt and road event
Topic | Belt and Road Initiative

Lee Jeong-ho

Keegan Elmer

Published:

Updated:

Attendees pick up copies of a book on President Xi Jinping’s governance at the forum’s media centre in Beijing on Friday. Photo: AP

Traffic woes, poor organisation and tight media control during China’s most important diplomatic event of the year have again raised questions over its ability to project soft power.

While Beijing attempted to dispel foreign fears over its “Belt and Road Initiative” and cement its legitimacy as a global development programme during the three-day forum, which ends on Saturday, its attempts at soft power fell flat for many of those attending.

Lack of a clear schedule often left attendees either waiting for hours on end or scrambling to catch up after an event started suddenly. One delegate from a European country complained that the forum was chaotic, saying there was no clear agenda provided – only a schedule giving time slots for speakers.

A person familiar with the forum’s administration said “the lack of organisation even from the Chinese side seemed very obvious”. They added that Chinese officials had been told not to speak to any media organisations about arrangements for the Belt and Road Forum throughout the event.

As well as the lack of information, Beijing’s tight media control has hurt attempts to show openness to the rest of the world. Domestic media were told by the propaganda department they could not comment on sensitive issues such as China’s trade war with the United States while the event was on.

Beijing’s second forum on its global trade and infrastructure strategy was attended by heads of state, along with 5,000 other representatives from 150 countries. But some of those who took part said the forum lacked sufficient content on its first and last day. In fact on the first day, only smaller panel discussions took place and they were “very general”, according to a Chinese participant.

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Meanwhile, television broadcasts of a round-table discussion on Saturday joined by nearly 40 world leaders featured only the opening remarks by President Xi Jinping, and the live stream was cut abruptly before any of the belt and road partner countries had a chance to speak.

“So basically this forum, to me, was a one-day publicity stunt for China,” said another person close to the conference’s organisation, saying there was not enough content for a three-day event.

“Most of the Chinese officials on Saturday were off to the airport to send the attendees home … [so] nothing much was happening [at the forum on the last day],” the person added.

But when something was about to happen, the organisers went into overdrive. In the run-up to Saturday night’s press conference with Xi, they realised there would not be enough reporters to fill all the seats at the venue so they hit the phones, asking journalists to attend the event – and bring their colleagues.

“We got a call from Chinese officials asking for our attendance at Xi’s press conference [on Saturday],” said a person working for a foreign media organisation. “They said they realised that they did not have enough reporters attending the press conference, and desperately asked for us to attend.”

With large stretches of Beijing’s roads closed for the forum there have been traffic jams on those that remain open. Photo: AP

The forum also caused headaches for ordinary Beijingers, who had to cope with heavy and poorly controlled traffic in the capital city. Large stretches of Beijing’s already congested highways were closed for the forum, leaving attendees – along with taxi drivers and commuters – caught in seemingly endless traffic jams on the remaining open roads.

The irony was not lost on locals. “Beijing hosting the Belt and Road Forum is supposed to promote global connectivity, but the traffic has been seriously chaotic these last few days … leaving no ‘connectivity’ for Beijing’s roads,” quipped one resident on social media, adding that GPS displays were showing roads where traffic had come to a standstill.

“The traffic police only care about the VIPs,” the person added.

Meanwhile at Beijing’s international airport on Saturday, many flights were cancelled or delayed because of airspace restrictions.

Belt and Road Initiative
Diplomacy
Belt and Road: 2019 Forum
Lee Jeong-ho reports on China's diplomacy for the Post. He also covers East Asian security and defence stories. Before joining the Post he was with the South Korean Air Force and News1 Korea. He has a bachelor's degree in media and communications and Chinese studies from Sydney University and a master's of international studies in Chinese area studies from Seoul National University.
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