A New Take on Public Diplomacy

One is the main reasons that I decided to pursue a masters’ degree in International Communications is that I had a desire to learn about public diplomacy. Proud American that I am, I was eager to learn how to explain American culture and US policies to the world. I was particularly interested in our radio efforts as it is a means of speaking to people in areas where there may not be internet or the media is censored. I must confess that I have been a bit disheartened by the view some of my professors have presented of US public diplomacy. Despite the technical “firewall” between the executive branch of government and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, many foreign nationals see the programming produced by the BBG (such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe) as a tool of American propaganda and inherently untrustworthy.

So I was intrigued when I saw mention on John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review (great resource for PD news, by the way) of a new online sensation created by none other than Voice of America! “OMG Meiyu” is a series of web videos created by VoA employee Jessica Beinecke, a Caucasian American who learned Chinese at college. In her videos, which she produces herself in her DC apartment, Jessica explains American slang and other terms that may not be taught in English classes in China. Particularly popular is her video for “Yucky Gunk” (see video above), where she teaches her audience the English words for bodily fluids. While the Chinese government blocks many Voice of America programs, it has allowed “OMG Meiyu” to remain posted on Weibo, a Chinese version of Youtube. On the site, Jessica interacts with her 100,000 and growing followers and takes suggestions for new videos.

I have mixed feelings about the popularity of this web series. On one hand, teaching Chinese youth expressions like “BFF” or “TTYL” is not likely to create social change in China, nor does it do much in the way of explaining US policy. But perhaps it can be a means of creating a connection between American and Chinese youth, allowing them to share the same language, the language of (American) pop culture. So perhaps the videos, which seem to be the work of a normal American girl and not the monolithic American government (I wonder how many fans know who funds it), will be able to reach out to a foreign audience in ways that our more traditional (stodgy?) forms of public diplomacy do not.

-Tory

Other links:

WaPo article on OMG Meiyu

BBG Press Release

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5 thoughts on “A New Take on Public Diplomacy

  1. Tory, I’m fascinated by the “OMG Meiyu” series. I agree that it’s a step forward for U.S. diplomacy in China, but not just for the language reason you mentioned. I actually think it’s because Jessica Beinecke creates such a positive image of Americans. Her videos express so much more meaning than just the Mandarin translation of “eye gunk.” They show a young American who has embraced the Chinese language and is looking to connect further with the culture. This is PR that the U.S. desperately needs. Instead of judging us all based on “Jersey Shore,” Chinese viewers can see a bright, educated American who recognizes that the U.S. should have some humility and pay attention to the rest of the world.

  2. Tory, you are right about it enabling American and Chinese youth to connect, but it does more than that. It helps all Chinese, young and old, who may be coming to America whether it be to study or as tourists or as businesspeople better understand us. That will build their confidence on other levels and make communication on all topics easier.

  3. The Broadcasting Board of Governors is promoting this video and confusing a lot of media reporters in the U.S. and elsewhere who have no idea that the BBG plans to end all Voice of America radio and TV broadcasts to China and to fire 45 VOA journalists who specialize in reporting on human rights topics in Mandarin and Cantonese. Their radio and TV reports are also available online on the VOA news website and social media sites, but these are blocked and censored by the Chinese cyber police. The BBG is not asking why these English video lessons are not blocked but they should, because this is what they want to offer if they succeed in ending VOA radio and TV to China. Members of Congress are trying to block this plan.

  4. @Gabby and Mitch- I agree. By “the language of pop culture” I meant it is more than just a literal translation of these silly words, but also that the videos teach American youth culture as well. And this is great because it allows Chinese viewers to understand certain aspects of our culture that may not be taught in English class, and feel a connection with Jessica and American youth by extension. But as @BBGWatcher points out, we are abandoning some of our traditional methods of outreach in China, and I too find this concerning. “Yucky Gunk” et al. has its utility, but I think we can all agree that it cannot be our sole means of communicating with the Chinese public directly! I hope to discuss this conundrum in an upcoming blog post.

  5. Jessica is delightful and very talented, but seriously, she is not different from other young Americans who appear in American movies seen in China and offer a similar glimpse into American life. Yes, she is a real person, not an actress. But she is not even identified with the Voice of America using its full name, just the letters VOA. Perhaps that’s why she’s still allowed on the Chinese Internet, but she soon may not be if she becomes too popular or identified closely with USG. And how is she going to express America’s real concern with human rights violations and other sensitive issues. She cannot and will not, otherwise she will be made to disappear from the Internet in China.

    In the meantime, the Broadcasting Board of Governors plans to end all VOA radio and satellite TV transmissions to China on October 1. Despite jamming of shortwave radio and the possibility of interfering with satellite TV signals, these programs are the only channel for interviews with Americans concerned about human rights and democracy in China and for presenting a more sophisticated picture of America. They offer a broad spectrum of opinions and topics, including “OMG Meiyu” for those who are interested.

    What the BBG really wants to do is to get rid of 45 journalists who provide a balance to the soft public diplomacy of English lessons. The BBG might as well do this, since all other news material from VOA will continue to be blocked on the Internet in China — it can only get through now on radio and satellite TV. Very few people in China can take advantage of the circumvention technology that may allow them to bypass the censorship. And using such technology is dangerous because, if they are not careful, it can expose them to the Chinese secret police — something the BBG does not want to talk about. Remember that the BBG cannot protect even its own VOA websites from successful cyber attacks by Iranian hackers who managed to place anti-American posters and slogans on more than 40 VOA news sites, while other hackers shut down VOA websites for days. Listening to radio and watching satellite TV is anonymous and safe.

    The BBG members where so excited about this English teaching video at their last meeting earlier this month that they forgot to mention China in their statement on threats to media freedom around the world. Well, they did not really forget. If they did mention China, where a VOA correspondent had been temporarily detained and roughed up by the secret police earlier this year, they would call attention to their decision to end VOA radio and TV programs. They claim they need the money to produce more programs like “OMG Meiyu” and invest in social media. Well, VOA is blocked from social media in China, as are Twitter and Facebook. And also, using social media, if it can be used, is cheap — practically free. The BBG’s argument that they need millions of dollars for social media outreach in China is absolutely ridiculous. They use this argument to get rid of pesky journalists who still want to do human rights reporting. This mass firing and ending of broadcasts will free up a lot of money for executive positions and private contractors. I think “OMG Meiyu” is produced out of an apartment. One can do a lot on the Internet from home even with no money. Millions of individuals and organizations have proven that it can be done cheeply. Radio and TV broadcasting, on the other hand, costs money.

    This is what BBG members really think: if we just produce more programs like “OMG Meiyu” we can reach a greater audience beacuse the censors will not block them and we will influence more people. But influence with what and to what purpose? And who will be influenced? Not the courageous Chinese dissidents who are fighting for human rights. They will be discouraged, as they have told the BBG in articles written to protest the decision to end VOA broadcasts.

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