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China's G20 Summit: How Not to Do Message Control

Tristen Naylor, G7 and G20 Research Groups
September 18, 2016

Diplomacy is most often about the little things. While we typically focus on grand strategy and cunning statecraft, the minutiae of international relations can make or break any particular meeting of world leaders. Get the details wrong and it doesn't matter how well you've planned in advance: all can too easily and quickly unravel.

This year's G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, serves as a textbook example of how, in fumbling the little things, you can lose control of the big things.

The Chinese hosts devoted unimaginable resources to the summit. There were 760,000 volunteers called into service for the two-day summit (to put that into perspective, 50,000 volunteers were on hand for the entire Rio Olympics); most of China's $19 billion in fiscal expenditures for 2016 were earmarked for the summit; and the government turned Hangzhou into a ghost town, offering $1.5 billion in travel vouchers to encourage many of the city's 6 million residents to leave their homes for the duration of the summit.

No effort was spared to make Hangzhou look perfect for the world's eyes: factories within a 300-kilometre radius of Hangzhou were shut down and traffic restrictions put in place to ensure the sky was blue for the summit, thousands of trees were planted to showcase this as a "green" summit, and rooftops were painted so as to appear as aesthetically pleasing as possible for any drones that might fly overhead (despite drones having been prohibited for the duration of the summit).

The Chinese hosts went to such great lengths in order to claim for themselves the status as a leader in global governance. As with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese government saw the G20 as its moment to showcase itself as a pre-eminent power on the world's stage. It is this curated image to which China devoted its energies — planning every careful detail and managing the execution of the summit.

China's opening move at the summit itself was to surprise the world with the announcement to ratify the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This is significant news. Yet  although the eve of the summit was intended to highlight China's leadership on climate change and environmental stewardship, it was largely overshadowed by small diplomatic gaffes. Upon arriving at the summit, U.S. president Barack Obama was forced to exit Air Force One from the rear of the plane after — either by design or mistake — rolling stairs to disembark (and the customary red carpet) were not available to him. Shortly thereafter, his National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, found herself in an altercation with a Chinese official on the tarmac, ending once a U.S. Secret Service agent intervened. The same Chinese official attempted to stop the White House press from assembling behind a rope line to cover the president's arrival.

Even if we give the Chinese hosts the benefit of the doubt and accept these incidents as unintentional errors (which they almost certainly were), they are nonetheless costly. Lacking little in the way of hard news to report at the summit, the media zeroed in on these relatively minor events who gave more life than they otherwise would have had.

The Chinese hosts left nothing to chance with the summit, imposing strict controls to ensure that the precise image and message they wanted projected were indeed those that were communicated. The trouble is, by being heavy-handed about it and leaving no room for flexibility at the operational level, there was no allowance made for relatively minor things not to go exactly to plan. It is almost inevitable that such things do not go perfectly to script and, by virtue of being relatively insignificant, those things do not actually much matter if just left as is. What blows them out of proportion is a disproportionate or inappropriate response to such trivialities, particularly in a context in which the assembled media have little else to report on. That's exactly what happened at the G20 Hangzhou Summit.

As such, in attempting to micro-manage control of the summit, the Chinese hosts lost control of the overall narrative. The world's media focused on China's attempts to control the media and apparently bully a rival power (playing into well-rehearsed narratives), instead of China's leadership on climate change and economic growth. It only took moments for small diplomatic errors to undo months of careful planning and undermine control of defining what this summit was intended to be about and what role China seeks to play in the world.

Controlling political narratives is like holding sand: grip too tightly and you will lose it more quickly. A delicate touch is needed and, although no expense was spared to have everything in place for the summit, this was the one, critical element that the Chinese hosts were missing. Good communications management requires flexibility, not strict control.

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Tristen NaylorTristen Naylor, PhD, is the Lecturer in Diplomacy at the University of Oxford. His work examines status and group membership in international society. Previously, Dr Naylor was a visiting researcher at Sciences Po, Paris and the Lecturer in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford. He formerly served as a foreign policy analyst and advisor for the Government of Canada.

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