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Olympic Cheerleaders Points New Direction for China's Diplomacy

To outsiders, the "official" Beijing Olympic cheer can be a little odd.

Since it was approved by the Chinese government, 800,000 volunteers have been practicing the routine to cheer on athletes – both Chinese and foreign --- at the Games in this August.

It's the concept of the four-step cheer that's puzzling, rather than the routine itself, which is easy to learn:

-- Clap twice, shouting "Olympics".

-- Give the thumbs up with your arms extended upward, shouting "Go".

-- Clap twice, shouting "China".

-- Punch the air with your fists, your arms extended, shouting "Go".

Why the need for an official Olympic cheer?

According to the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, which unveiled the routine in June, it "demonstrates to the world the charisma of the Chinese people and our enthusiasm".

But the Olympic chant also symbolizes the government's acknowledgement that China's image-making in the world is now pretty much up to the people than government

The Olympics will be a crucial test yet of China's "people-to-people diplomacy" -- and its outcome could determine the future influence of the wider society in China's international bridge-building.

The chant is one of the measures in the government's "civilization campaign" to educate its people on their public behavior for the Olympics.

The "official etiquette watchdog", the Communist Party's Spiritual Civilization Steering Committee, is also promoting "queuing days" to encourage the formation of orderly lines, and waging war against spitting and littering.

Chen Haosu, president of the non-governmental Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPFFC), says millions of foreigners will come to China during and after the Games, and some will even stay in local people's homes.

Individuals will contribute to diplomacy as long as they communicate goodwill to the world, he says.

Most Chinese may consider diplomacy the preserve of professional diplomats acting for the government. In fact, the people have played leading roles in modern China's international relations, most famously with the "ping-pong (table tennis) diplomacy" between the United States and China in 1971.

"When it's difficult for the government to carry out formal diplomatic activities, it's a good idea to start with the people," Chen says.

Former Premier Zhou Enlai raised the concept of "people-to-people diplomacy" in the mid 1950s, leading to the establishment of the CPFFC in 1954, which has since become the major channel for China's non-governmental diplomacy.

The CPFFC, where Chen has worked for almost 20 years, has developed relations with foreign organizations and individuals, organized tours abroad by arts troupes and set up a global network of "friendship cities".

However, the CPFFC, whose staff are ranked as civil servants, recognizes that one organization with tight links to the Chinese government is limited in its non-governmental diplomatic ambitions.

With the development of a civil society in China and greater interaction with the rest of the world, experts are discussing how much influence the public should have in government policy-making.

Chen believes that the government should play the leading role in building a good international image. But, sometimes the official way fails to convince foreigners, especially when they misunderstand the issues.

"It's important to demonstrate a strong civil will and let the public voice their opinions in diplomatic affairs, given that common people's stories and opinions may have greater effect, “ he says.

Professor Wang Jisi with Beijing University's School of International Studies, has described Sino-U.S. relations as "a government versus a whole society".

And his colleague, associate professor Yu Wanli, explains that the well-developed U.S. civil society allows non-governmental forces to set the diplomatic agenda, while China's major diplomatic channel is official.

When it comes to some sensitive issues, the government may find it tough to deal with, while they can be better handled through non-governmental communication, says Professor Zhang Shengjun, of Beijing Normal University's School of Politics and International Relations, says

In a long run, he points out the government's ability is limited to reacting to some issues, while the public can be more proactive.

For instance, Chinese Internet users conducted an effective campaign against what they saw as the Western media's "biased" reports on the March 14 Lhasa riots. They started petitions on such major port websites, as sina.com and china.com, demanding the Western media to apologize.

Rao Jin, a Tsinghua University graduate, even set up the website, www.anti-cnn.com, to highlight what he said were incorrect and inaccurate reports.

"We are not against the Western media, but against the lies and fabricated stories in the media; we are not against the Western people, but against the prejudice from Western society," he said.

In response, Germany's RTL TV and N-TV published corrections and apologies on their websites on March 23 and 24 respectively.

The Washington Post published an editor's note on March 24, saying the caption for a slideshow on the Tibet riot had been incorrectly associated with a photo from Nepal where police clashed with Tibetans. The caption was corrected.

"The people's voice was heard by the international community and received a positive response," Yu says.

However, other public reactions to Western coverage of the Lhasa riot and the Olympic torch relay disruptions in Paris triggered controversy among the public and concern among the experts.

Thousands of people staged protests in front of Carrefour supermarkets in China, calling for a boycott of the French chain and other French brands, including Luis Vuitton, which allegedly supported the Dalai Lama.

The CPFFC's Chen Haosu says it was good to see the public's stance, but the action was inappropriate.

"Sometimes people fail to distinguish patriotism from extreme nationalism," he notices.

He says, “The public should be made aware that they should act in accordance with the national interest.”

Yu agrees, saying the government should encourage the development of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and try to influence their behavior by offering funding or other incentives.

However, in an article published in the Beijing-based Global Times, Beijing University Professor Zha Daojiong says government diplomacy could no longer completely meet public opinion as China was evermore open to the world. NGOs should be given more space to contribute to diplomatic affairs.

"All they have to know is that their behavior will have a great impact on national diplomacy," Zha says. "I believe most people have the initiative to defend the national interest."

Previous initiatives in “people-to-people” diplomacy have been notably successful.

In April 1971, at the invitation of their Chinese counterparts, the U.S. table tennis team became the first U.S. group to visit China since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

That visit broke the ice after two decades of frosty relations and eventually led to full diplomatic ties in 1979.

In the 1960s, Chinese and Japanese teams played the same role in Sino-Japanese relations with "weiqi", or "go chess", which is played with black and white pieces on a board of 361 crosses.

Weiqi, developed in China thousands of years ago, became popular in Japan during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.C.). Ultimately, it resulted in a greater public demand in Japan for the normalization of ties with China, finally realized in 1972.

Sport is playing a major role again this time, says Chen Haosu. “The public will be a major diplomatic force during the Olympics, helping to build China's image.

"Everyone like the game cheerleaders can be a diplomat."

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