What Jeremy Hunt's 'Japanese wife' gaffe says about political messaging in the UK and China

It's 2pm, Beijing time, Monday. Two delegations - one British, led by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt; the other Chinese, led by his counterpart Wang Yi - face each other across a table. Hunt's introduction breaks the ice with a faux-pas.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (left) with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (image via @Jeremy_Hunt on Twitter)
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (left) with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (image via @Jeremy_Hunt on Twitter)

"My wife is Japanese. No! She’s not. She’s Chinese!"

The bumbling Englishman has spoken. The Chinese grin internally and nod their heads respectfully.

If that paragraph reads like a drama script, then it should. Not because Jeremy Hunt scripted his ‘Japanese wife’ gaffe, but because our response to it says so much about how we are managing the political message in the West.

BBC News filmed the episode, and soon it was trending on Twitter. It was 7am London time, and newspaper editors across the country were waking up, not expecting to find this lavish gift from Hunt in their feeds. The story trended all day.

Meanwhile, in China, it wasn’t reported. People will say this is because the news there is censored but actually, there was no ban on reporting. Chinese editors would have decided it would be rude to invite someone to their country only to diminish them for a slip of the tongue.

"But he had a long flight. And the jet-lag," one well-placed source at the Foreign Ministry in China told me. They couldn’t understand the glee and schadenfreude. After all, there were no political or policy implications.

While the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph etc will have travelled along with the FCO press team, all reported independently. They had no mandate from their editors or from the FCO. They were not instructed to say this, or that. Nor did they have a collective agenda.

Contrast this with the China reporters, from CGTN (China’s BBC) and Xinhua (China’s Reuters). Their reporters would have been briefed at length about the arrival of the British delegation. There would have been seminars, talking points (including about Hunt’s wife from Xi’an, Western China), reading materials and storylines on message. MIIT, China’s Ministry of Information, would have practised scenarios, and designed how to put out the meeting as a ‘win-win’ event.

So which camp got out the best political message?

Well, the UK reporting on Hunt’s first official trip to China as Foreign Secretary was dominated by a 10-second gaffe, while the Chinese used the visit to remind their population how close their friendship is with the UK. They genuinely like Hunt, who knows China, but above that, the internal message is so tightly focused that no joke could come between it and its audience.

The message is about China’s progress in building strategic alliances, crucial to the success of its Belt and Road Initiative. Britain has a similar political agenda: it needs to build partnerships across the globe. Both nations are on the brink of change.

Every political PR knows an agenda needs a message. Without one, dialogue is led by events. In Beijing this week, we saw that happen. The worry isn’t so much that everybody went off message, but that there seemed to be no message to go off.

Kitty Smyth is CEO of Jingpinou

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