Written by Gary Rawnsley.

The historic significance of Zhang Zhijun’s visit to Taiwan cannot be overstated: As Minister for the PRC’s State Council-level Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) he is the highest ranking official from the PRC to set foot on the island in 65 years, and his four-days tour follows his meetings in Nanjing and Shanghai with Wang Yu-chi, Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) earlier this year. Many words have been written about Zhang’s visit – what it means, what it doesn’t mean, why it is right, why it is wrong, why people are protesting, why Taiwan’s government has responded to protests with intimidation and violence. From the perspective of public diplomacy, his visit is yet further evidence of a complete transformation in China’s international communications strategy from one based on Communist-style vertical propaganda to a strategy that is far more nuanced and sensitive to both the new media landscape and the way audiences now consume news, information and culture. (I discuss these changes in my chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies, edited by Jonathan Auerbach and Russ Castronovo, 2014.)

Zhang’s visit is structured around many photo-opportunities to support his claim that his visit is designed to get a feel for the ‘ordinary’ in Taiwan, and the media have complied, for example by publishing photos of him enjoying lunch with senior citizens in New Taipei City. While I doubt that we will next see photos of any Chinese leader actually kissing babies, we cannot overlook the way this demonstrates the changes in the leadership’s understanding of how the media work; and I would argue it started when former Premier, Wen Jiabao, visited railway stations at Chinese New Year in 2008 to apologise for disruption to travel plans caused by adverse weather conditions. Before then, how many times did we ever see such a senior official engaging with any member of the public, let alone apologise to them and in front of cameras?

It is clear that Zhang’s visit has been designed to address and allay the concerns of multiple audiences. First he must communicate with the people in Taiwan. At a time when the situation in Hong Kong is heating up and opposition to Beijing’s management of the SAR is becoming more vocal and active, China must somehow convince the people of Taiwan (for whom One Country, Two Systems was originally conceived) that they have nothing to fear of a future similar relationship with the PRC. This is not easy as Zhang’s visit comes on the heels of a statement by TAO spokesman, Fan Liqing, who said that Taiwan’s future would be decided by all Chinese, not just the 24 million people on the island, an announcement that left a sour taste in the mouths of Taiwanese.

Many people on Taiwan, especially those who oppose the KMT’s current management of cross-Strait relations, are worried that Zhang’s visit will result in secret negotiations and even more secret deals that threaten the sovereignty of Taiwan – that the KMT will sell them out. To pacify such concerns, Zhang’s strategy has undertaken two striking aspects of public relations. First, he is not having discussions with high-level government officials other than MAC head, Wang Yu-chi. That he is not meeting President Ma certainly helps both sides: Ma is detached from the visit and can avoid claims that he is snuggling up to Beijing (after Fan’s inflammatory comments, Ma immediately issued a statement repudiating China’s right to settle the future of Taiwan and upholding the 1992 Consensus); and Zhang is able to demonstrate to audiences in China that this is not a state-to-state visit. If he did meet Ma, the trip would assume higher status and could complicate, if not undermine Beijing’s continued opposition to state-to-state negotiations.

Second, Zhang met on Friday 27th June with Chen Chu, the Green Mayor of Kaohsiung. This was a good PR strategy: it shows audiences in Taiwan that China can and will do business with a political party far removed from its own agenda (times have changed since Chen Shui-bian was President), while also demonstrating to the Chinese that the ostensibly pro-independence opposition is likewise willing to engage with the CCP. The meeting is also good political strategy: by building ties with the DPP now, Beijing understands that democratic mechanisms may deliver a change of government in 2016 and that China’s relationship with Taiwan can withstand the challenges this result may bring to the surface.

Another dimension to this visit is how his tour is communicated to Chinese audiences in the PRC. They are told repeatedly that this is a ‘historic’ four days, that the people of Taiwan have been looking forward to Zhang’s visit, they welcome him and expect Zhang will strengthen ties with the mainland; and that only a tiny minority of people (mostly students) have protested against his visit. These themes are repeated in China’s English language media, especially CCTV-N, bringing to the discussion of communications a distinctly international flavour. Chinese media have avoided in-depth coverage of the protests and Chen Chun’s explanation to Zhang that demonstrations are an expected and accepted feature of democracy. Audiences will also not learn of the sometimes violent means by which Taiwan’s police have chosen to respond to these protests, provoking claims among the KMT’s opponents that democracy is regressing – and which may ultimately undermine Taiwan’s own ‘soft power’.

So if anyone was in doubt, the brief visit to Taiwan by Zhang Zhijun confirms that China now recognises the value of public diplomacy and that long-term engagement, especially with individuals and parties outside one’s comfort zone, can build a lasting political strategy. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and their fallout were a public relations disaster for the PRC, but were also a powerful wake-up call for the CCP that China required a revitalised communication system. Since then, they have recognised three important details: First, China’s commitment to a ‘peaceful rise’ as a regional and global political actor requires a more nuanced international communications strategy that has embraced public diplomacy; second the Chinese must now communicate in a new media landscape and use all platforms available to do so; and three, as Zhang’s visit to Taiwan demonstrates, choosing with whom you wish to be seen engaging and for which audience is a critical skill for any modern political communications strategy.

Gary Rawnsley is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University.  He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @GDRaber.