There is a Chinese adage that foreign policy advisers in the White
House may feel compelled to whisper in the ear of their president,
George W Bush at some point over the coming days: 'A thousands days at
home, peace; a moment abroad, trouble'.
The US-China spy-plane crisis has illustrated for President Bush the
huge cultural and political differences that exist between arguably the
world's strongest and most important nations.
But can the two afford a long-term thawing of the fragile relationship
tentatively built by successive leaders over the past 20 years? And what
impact would a long-term face-off between 'strategic competitors' have
on the international PR industry vying to do big business in China's
potentially great consumer market?
Most of the big global PR players - for example, Weber-Shandwick,
Edelman, Brodeur Worldwide, Batey-Burns and Gavin Anderson - have had
interests in China since the mid-1980s, when the then Chinese leader
Deng Xiaoping started to promote market reforms.
Hill & Knowlton can lay claim to being the oldest China hand,
establishing its first China office in Beijing in 1984. So, knowing the
intricate, sophisticated and often sensitive art and science of Chinese
political protocol particularly well, it came as little surprise that
the grandaddy of Western PR operations in China politely refused to
offer its learned thoughts on the matter to PRWeek.
'Given the situation and the sensitivity in the region at the moment,
both from a political and economic point of view, H&K think it
appropriate that it should not comment at this time,' said a spokeswoman
in London, with Confucianistic tact.
For China PR veteran Tim Heberlien, Edelman MD China, the current spat
must be treated with caution. Heberlien, who has been working in China
since 1979, drew a comparison - as did many PRWeek spoke to - with the
1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO's war in
Then, the initial anger - after orchestrated and violent scenes outside
US and UK embassies in Beijing and much sabre-rattling from China
Communist Party leaders - died down and business quickly resumed its
usual, resolute state. After all, both Washington and Beijing know they
need each other economically, says Heberlein.
But the Kosovo crisis was tackled under a softer Clinton administration,
exercising a Third Way with its new 'strategic partner' - paving the way
for modernising China to join the elite G8 club. Today, however, Bush's
straight-talking, apparently gunboat diplomacy on several global issues
raises eyebrows a great deal higher among those Western CEOs - be they
in Baltimore, Brussels or Beijing - vying for a slice of the Chinese
'We are watching the situation very closely and waiting to see if it
blows over as one would expect. But there is cause for concern for PR
companies doing business in China,' said Heberlein from his Beijing
'It is worrying that two congressional delegations from the States have
cancelled two forthcoming trips to China because of the crisis. There
would therefore be further concern if business delegations from the US
followed suit, and cancelled visits. This could affect future business
in the short term,' he adds.
Heberlein expressed an underlying anxiety by claiming all foreign
interests in Asia need the burgeoning Chinese market - 'so we need the
situation to be resolved as quickly as possible'.
'If it gets to the stage where there are certain bans on US
multinational business activity, such as advertising, or coverage in the
Chinese media, then that could affect brand initiatives and this will
impact on PR companies. If this were to happen, the long-term impact is
anybody's guess,' says Heberlein.
Charles Lankester, chief executive financial communications Weber
Shandwick Worldwide (WSW), has been watching the diplomatic posturing
about the spy-plane from his London desk.
WSW has three China practice groups - consumer, technology and corporate
- with emerging areas in healthcare and financial PR. With 35 staff in
Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou working on client accounts - which
include Procter & Gamble, Hewlett Packard, Northwest Airlines,
MasterCard, British Airways, Philips and Siemens - Lankester perhaps has
good reason to remain optimistic about the situation.
'What is happening at the moment, and what needs to be played out is
this political ballet. The crisis is no more serious than when the US
accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Frankly, I would
give economic boycotts by either side a five per cent chance of taking
place,' says Lankester, who spent 10 years at offices in Singapore as
Lankester says that any PR company currently practising, or wishing to
practice, in China must understand that the market is sophisticated and
that there are significant differences economically, politically and
socially. 'China is a single political party state and the US a
democracy, so there are obvious differences in the way things are done,'
he points out.
'Every nation has it own protocol, or idiosyncrasies. To say saving face
is more important to the Chinese than to Westerners is wrong, as a New
York businessman will also go out his way to save face. The current
situation will blow over soon, if not by the time this article appears,'
Gavin Anderson's China-watcher and financial PRO associate director
Tristan Peniston-Bird - who was transferred back to the company's London
office in December after a long spell in Asia - claims it is
'inevitable' that US-China foreign relations will spill-over into
'But what one has to assess is to what extent each government exploits
trade and Chinese market-access as bargaining chips in the current round
of brinkmanship,' he says.
'Foreign companies have been doing business in China for decades under
varying levels of East-West relations. The current escalation of
hostility between China and the US is not that much worse than with the
accidental bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade,' added Peniston-Bird,
who spent three years in Asia.
He adds that should the crisis dig in, the higher echelons of big
business in China would make a distinction made between American and
other Western companies, 'and no doubt non-US companies will seek to
exploit the current situation.'
'However, at the 'street kerb' level, the mass consumer audiences will
typically associate Western and US products as being basically the same,
such that widespread boycotts and the like could hurt all Western
players,' he argues.
So what do the corporates with Chinese interests make of the situation?
Are they rushing for their copy of PRWeek Contact to enlist extra help
should Bush go head-to-head with Beijing for the long haul?
In June 2000, the Anglian Water Group won a 20-year operational contract
to provide drinking water in Hexian, Anhui Province, serving some two
million customers. 'As there is no US aspect to our existing and planned
contracts in China, we do not anticipate any adverse reaction to our
business,' said its spokesman Andrew Macintosh.
'Beijing needs to upgrade its water infrastructure sooner rather than
later. We are confident that (our dealings in China) will go ahead and
will not be influenced by the current situation.'
Other companies contacted by PRWeek expressed a need to keep their
counsel at the moment. The China British Business Council, which seeks
to forge closer ties with Chinese markets and businesses, said it did
not wish to comment, citing 'political sensitivity'. So too industrial
gases specialist BOC Group, which has huge interests in China, but a
spokesman did say: 'President Bush's stance on the Kyoto agreement on
pollution would do more damage to Western businesses around the world
than the current incident'.
PRWeek contacted Bush's PR team at the White House for this article,
speaking to an obviously overworked operative, who informed him
'everything that had to be said has been said', and flatly refused to
answer any queries by slamming down the phone.
In these stressful times, PROs, politicians and CEO alike should perhaps
adhere to the other well-oiled Chinese adage: 'Virtue is the
establishment of perfect harmony'.
PRESIDENT BUSH - FOREIGN POLICY
Scour the headlines over the past few months and it becomes apparent
that George W Bush's idea of a global and domestic charm offensive
differs greatly from modern dictionary definitions: 'Bush sets a strong
Right-wing agenda'; 'US blow to treaty on global warming'; 'Bush sours
North Korea relations'; 'Bush begins with ban on aid funds for
abortions'; 'Star Wars programme angers Russia'. And then, of course,
there's China ...
'Communications with Beijing and the Chinese business community is very
much an art, and Bush's approach to China has so far been in keeping in
what we expected from his West/Texas approach. It's very conservative
and stern in manner and tone, and it's different from that we saw under
Clinton. We will of course have to watch and wait to see how things
develop,' expressed veteran China PR expert Tim Heberlein, Edelman MD in
Beijing, with an air of resignation twinged with anticipation. 'If I
knew what the outcome of Mr Bush's approach was to be, then I wouldn't
be sitting in Beijing doing PR, I would be a wealthy man lying on a
beach in the Bahamas,' he jokes.
Charles Lankester, Weber Shandwick Worldwide chief executive financial
communications, admires Bush's handling of the spy-plane saga. 'He's
handed out the olive branch to China by expressing remorse about the
downed pilot, and has set a strong strategic approach. I think he has
handled the situation very well under the circumstances,' he says.
Meanwhile, BOC spokesman Nigel Abbot says Bush may have been better
served by taking a more apologetic approach.
'I think the bigger story here is George Bush's foreign policy approach
per se. His refusal to cut carbon dioxide emissions at the Kyoto summit
shows a disregard which is extraordinary. This may do more harm for
businesses globally,' he said.