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The power of an apology: Why China should express regret for COVID-19

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The Coronavirus nightmare is tapering off in China, which is good news for the Chinese. They moved aggressively, and often courageously, to rein in an epidemic that’s terrorised them for two months and left a tornado-like trail of disease and death that dwarfs the SARS tragedy of 2003.

For the rest of the world, however, the virus is on the loose. Its tentacles now extend from China’s neighbours – in Japan and South Korea – farther afield to Iran, Italy, the United States, and dozens of other countries. As epidemic evolves into pandemic, the public panic also accelerates: calls for quarantine and closures; flights and events cancelled; manhunts for each new Patient Zero; and so on.

We should expect the finger-pointing at China to further intensify, as well as more eruptions of anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia. For China’s image, the virus now known as COVID-19 has inflicted immeasurable damage, despite the billions that the country has invested over the years into its “soft power” efforts – which are aimed at winning hearts and minds around the world.

For Beijing, then, COVID-19 is more than a domestic struggle against an invisible foe. It’s a battle in the court of international public opinion – and an epic challenge for China’s global communications. How can China salvage the situation, or even turn lemons into lemonade?

Beyond hyping the genuine heroism of ordinary folks on the frontlines, or blaming America for the outbreak, Chinese strategists seem to have hit upon another way to spin this: elevating China into the role of global leader, helping others in a fight against “the common enemy of mankind” – epidemics such as this.

In the process, their spokespeople try to sway us to overlook an inconvenient detail: that China almost certainly is at fault for the origins of this epidemic. In fact, more Chinese scientists, officials and media themselves acknowledge that with their wildlife trade, they failed to apply the lessons of SARS. (Which, unfortunately, also sprang from China.)

Yet after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stigmatizsed the Chinese by recently branding it the “Wuhan virus” and “China virus,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman retorted: “By calling it ‘China virus’ and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare. The epidemic is a global challenge.”

That said, I agree with the premise: the Chinese now have a golden opportunity to change the narrative among many Westerners. What they’re doing so far is well and good, but it doesn’t go far enough. My strategy for them would include an unpalatable, but more persuasive, element: imagine if the Chinese were to formally apologise. Not because bigoted blowhards at Fox News, like Jessie Watters or Brian Kilmeade, disingenuously “demand” an apology, but because it’s actually in China’s self-interest to do so.

Indeed, Beijing could “turn a negative into a positive” simply by betting on the Western culture of forgiveness. Absent an apology, though, the PR tactics of China’s image-makers will likely fail to resonate with nearly as many as foreigners as they could impact.

As a US citizen living in Beijing, I’ve long heard the Chinese lament: How to better explain China to the world? And How to tell China’s story well? Now working at the nexus of state media and soft-power efforts, I often advise my Chinese colleagues on how to effectively impact their foreign audience.

This epidemic, however, is a Herculean task in crisis communications. Especially, as the world learns of the mounting evidence: that China truly is to blame. Even if it was inadvertent. Despite effusive praise from the World Health Organization about how China has contained the crisis, the main culprit is likely a wildlife trade that breeds disease and infects humans. Just as it likely triggered the SARS event.

As one Chinese media outlet recently noted: “The trauma from the 2003 SARS outbreak lingers in the memory of Chinese people. After 17 years, the trace of the new epidemic still points to the trade and consumption of wild animals. It is hard not to blame the penchant for wildlife products.” And China, to its credit, is already moving to correct its errors.

It goes well beyond Beijing’s early admission of “shortcomings and deficiencies” during the initial response, particularly in releasing information to the public, which observers say enabled the virus to spread widely and multiplied the human toll. More telling is how China hones in on the root-cause of the outbreak: on Feb 24, its top legislative body moved one step closer to criminalising the wildlife trade – and consumption of such creatures.

Chinese officialdom didn’t play up this move abroad (perhaps because  the implied admission of blame), and it largely flew under the radar of foreign media covering China. But I view it as a significant step – from a strategic communication standpoint. With this gesture in hand, as well as visible efforts to assist countries in need (such as Iran, Italy and others), I suggest that China now do something that many in Beijing find inconceivable: Apologise.

That’s right. Apologise to the entire international community. For needlessly, but unintentionally, causing this fright. Sure, “It could’ve happened anywhere.” Like SARS, though, it happened in China. (The SARS outbreak, in fact, set a precedent for apology, as the head of China’s Center for Disease Control did “apologise to everyone” in 2003.)

Then, in conjunction with this apology, China could vow to do “everything within its power” to ensure it never occurs again. With that wildlife ban in hand, China would at least have tangible evidence to credibly support its pledge. (Of course, the devil’s in the details to enforce a ban on the lucrative wildlife industry. Still, it’s a meaningful start.)

So, why would China heed my advice, and apologise for COVID-19? When we’re in a Trumpian era of denial or “doubling down” on misdeeds? Or, as many Chinese netizens assert on domestic social-media: Did the US ever apologize for the H1N1 epidemic? Did Africa ever apologize for Ebola? No and no.

To be fair to the Chinese, they might reasonably surmise that an apology is futile. Epidemics have long fuelled xenophobia. Even before COVID-19, China faced relentlessly negative coverage from major Western media – the prime conduit that shapes global public opinion. I myself am not here to defend Chinese government policies, nor how their officials communicate, as they typically offer up lofty rhetoric, rather than the sort of credible, verifiable evidence that’s the bedrock of responsible Western journalism.

However, as I’ve learned from my own analysis of Western coverage of China over the past year, theirs is more than a run-of-the-mill scepticism, which every serious journalist should possess. Instead, it’s a steady drumbeat of China-can-do-no-right.

Moreover, only a certain segment of the Western audience would be open to a Chinese apology. When China communicates, it isn’t speaking to the “entire world”. Only to the more globally-minded folks who actually pay attention to, or care about, international affairs. As I’ve learned from living on four continents, the vast majority of every society doesn’t care for such issues. They’re more parochial.

When it comes to China, though, plenty of people pay attention to the world’s second-largest economy, which, according to the World Bank, has contributed disproportionately to global growth over the past decade. Having lived in Beijing since 2015, though, I realise that China’s foreign audience is far from monolithic; it’s more like a nuanced spectrum that I split into three categories:

1) Those who are anti-China, for some reason. Virtually nothing “positive” they learn will change their mind about China. So, Chinese communicators can basically write them off. Among US citizens, for example, no apology would truly placate the government leaders or right-wing media who now bang a drum about “the Chinese Coronavirus”; they’re either race-baiting to rile their audience, or hoping to deflect and distract attention from the Trump Administration’s bungling of the crisis. Trump himself stirs the pot.

2) Those who are pro-China, for some reason. Virtually nothing negative they hear about China will change their mind. Chinese communicators can, and do, toss them fresh red-meat, to satiate their appetite. But they’re already preaching to the choir, so no need to work hard to persuade them.

3) Then, the third category: those in the middle. On the fence about China. Could swing either way. Presumably, they’re smart and fair, but skceptical. Not inclined to see China in black-and-white, but nuanced shades of grey. For Chinese communicators to register some desired impact on this audience, though, it depends on how strategically and persuasively they deliver their messages and arguments.

This middle cohort, then, ought to be the true target of China’s global communications. As I’ve learned from my own career, outreach to any smart-but-sceptical audience must rely on “evidence-based” communications, because the only hope to convince a sceptical mind is by proffering concrete, credible and verifiable facts – presented transparently.

All too often, however, China seems to avoid this challenge of persuasion, settling for serving up fodder for foreigners who are already fans. They write off all the rest as hopelessly anti-Chinese, driven by historical, racial reasons, or by an irrational fear today that leads to “wanting to hold China back”.

That helps to explain why so many Chinese were infuriated by the initial global reaction to the Coronavirus outbreak. Rather than receive an outpouring of sympathy and support, Chinese media reported on the spasm of anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia, across the West.

Amid this crisis, then, let’s imagine if Beijing aimed for the fair-minded middle cohort of its foreign audience. Ignore how other nations have responded to past epidemics. Rise above, China! Why? I see at least three ways in which your image would benefit from apologising:

1) It’s the right thing to do. Again, whether intentional or not, when you bring harm unto others, you apologise. Just because someone else doesn’t apologise for their actions, doesn’t absolve you of that moral duty. Besides, in the court of public opinion, doing the right thing may score you points.

2) Recognise the Western culture of forgiveness. Time and again, we’ve seen this formula succeed: Express sincere contrition, then reinforce it with tangible proof of steps you’re already taking to make amends and ensure it isn’t repeated. Such an approach would prompt quite a few foreigners to accept China’s apology. After all, “everyone makes mistakes”, right?

3) China is the world’s emerging superpower, if not a superpower already. At a time when more and more in the West are clearly uneasy about China’s remarkable rise, the virus-related scapegoating will surely grow louder and further tarnish China’s reputation – regardless of how often prominent voices like the World Health Organization (WHO) misleadingly portrays China (the WHO’s second-largest donor) as if “protecting” the rest of us, while eliding the origins.

Against this backdrop, if China were to publicly hold itself accountable, it might reassure the more reasonable foreign sceptics of how seriously China embraces the responsibility of a world leader. As in: We’re not like the Trump Administration.

All that said, I don’t really expect China’s foremost communicators to change course. Though many now embrace Twitter as a modern-day platform to aggressively defend China, they largely maintain their own traditions, style and rationale – regarding what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Old habits can be hard to break. With all due respect, Beijing is more accustomed to delivering pronouncements, without being questioned, let alone challenged. Officials tend toward lofty rhetoric, rarely supporting it with credible evidence. Again, that sceptical foreign media finds this unpersuasive.

Concerning COVID-19, Chinese officials, spokespeople and other defenders draw upon a limited range of counter-arguments. As one observer notes, the central themes have been of “fierce struggle, personal sacrifice and unity, all under the stolid leadership of” the Communist Party of China.

They also routinely tout foreign acclaim of their containment efforts. Or, they deride an over-reactive Western world, which they suggest can’t help but vent its anti-Chinese hatred. Most recently, the Chinese were outraged by a Wall Street Journal opinion piece with a headline branded China as The Real Sick Man of Asia. In response, Beijing expelled three WSJ correspondents from the country.

Some commentators even, reportedly, lashed out with threats – for example, of withholding pharmaceuticals from the US. While one prominent spokesman just publicly embraced a conspiracy theory, that “the US Army” may have unleashed this virus upon China. Though, again to be fair to the Chinese, these may be counter-punches to the veiled threats and malicious conspiracies floated by some figures in Washington, too.

(Meanwhile, the Chinese themselves are anxious about potential re-infection, brought by foreigners (like my son and I) who left during the epidemic – and hope to return soon.)

Yet these fast-moving circumstances offer an ideal opportunity for Chinese image-makers to reconsider who exactly their target-audience is and how to most effectively affect them.

Western society, for one, is built upon a set of Judeo-Christian values, of which forgiveness is a fundamental tenet. Devout Christians, in particular, “are commanded by God to forgive others,” even if “it isn’t an easy command to follow”. Others advocate the broader benefits, for anyone: “The practice of forgiveness is directly related to emotional healing and the building of peaceful communities.”

Then there’s the PR benefits, according to Crisis Communication experts. Public perceptions and trust matter for any organisation. When a crisis tears at that trust, there’s a burning need to rebuild it. “In a crisis, trust is the only currency you have,” says one expert.

Some in the field do dispute the merits of actually apologising. As the Harvard Business Review once wrote: “Refusal to apologise can be smart, or it can be suicidal. Conversely, readiness to apologise can be seen as a sign of strong character or as a sign of weakness. A successful apology can turn enmity into personal and organisational triumph – while an apology that is too little, too late, or too transparently tactical can bring on individual and institutional ruin.”

Even then, the consensus among crisis-communication experts is: “Regardless of the situation, an apology, especially if you’re in the wrong, can make all the difference.”

Strategically, a sincere apology, delivered well, can also generate a fresh storyline, enabling any institution to subtly change the subject. “Creating content is something that every person in a crisis needs to think about,” says Susan Gilchrist, of the Brunswick Group.

Moreover, says Gilchrist, “Whatever you’re doing in a crisis, you’ve got to look like part of the solution, not part of the problem… That is fundamentally what you’ve got to prove.”

However, for China, or anyone else, how can you be viewed as a credible, trusted part of the solution, unless you acknowledge your own role in causing that problem?

Lastly, there’s the apology itself – and its methodology.

In his 2006 article, The Power of Remorse and Apology, Brooklyn College’s Hershey Friedman identified several schools of thought regarding the core components of a genuine, ultimately effective, apology. For one school, there are The Four Rs: Remorse, Restitution, Rehabilitation and Request for Forgiveness. For another, it’s The Five R’s: Recognition, Remorse, Repentance, Restitution and Reform.

Some offer more detailed steps: 1) Identification of the wrongful act; 2) Expression of remorse and regret for having committed the act; 3) Promise to forbear from committing the wrongful act in the future; 4) Offer of repair or restitution. Optional is whether you explain why the offense was committed.

For the Chinese, again, they already have evidence of making amends, through new laws, tighter enforcement and assisting fellow governments. So, I think their apology could go something like this:

Dear International Community… We deeply regret that this epidemic – which broke out in China and has brought so much pain and hardship to the Chinese people – is now affecting and afflicting so many innocent people around the world. We understand your anger. But please know that we’re now doing everything we can, not only to protect our own society, but to minimise the harm elsewhere, by assisting our friends and allies abroad. We’re also sincerely committed to taking all necessary steps to ensure this never happens again.

(Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that an apology should include any promise of financial restitution. Lawsuits against companies may be on the horizon. And one class-action lawsuit against Chinese officials has already been filed in Florida. But could an apology that admits error expose China to potential lawsuits? From airlines, for example – for lost revenue? Or from individual victims of the virus, or from their surviving family?)

Beyond its apology, there are ways in which China could sweeten its response. Rather than consider creating a new institution that rivals the WHO, as Axios recently reported, China could deliver much more than the $20 million donation it just gave to the UN agency. How about the largest-ever donation to the WHO – specifically for the study and prevention of future epidemics? Or, fund a rapid-reaction force to respond to any outbreak? Or, create China’s own Global Centre for the Study of Epidemics, complete with international exchanges, student scholarships etc.

Furthermore, China could bolster and publicise its existing whistleblower laws, to strengthen its own governance. As a goodwill gesture to its own populace, it could name this enhanced whistleblower law after Li Wenliang, to memorialise the noble Wuhan doctor who initially sounded the alarm about the virus, then was harassed by local officials. Li himself was soon infected by disease – and died on Feb 7.

To be sure, none of these apologetic steps would guarantee that the world fully forgives China. Again, though, when you consider the scope of China’s foreign audience, you’re not aiming for either the anti-China or pro-China crowd. Their views are already set. Rather, there’s real potential to impact more of the fair-minded middle.

Or, weigh the alternative: the lasting damage this pandemic may do to China’s reputation. How many foreigners in that middle cohort may swing the other way, ultimately remembering this epidemic just as U.S. officials like Pompeo repeatedly portray it: as “the China virus”? That stigma may stick forever.

Instead, if Chinese image-makers were to ask me, I’d urge them to overcome any trepidation about “losing face” and take a bold risk with a well-constructed apology. Then, count on another truism of Western society: Life is all about second chances – as long as you prove yourself deserving of one.

Michael J. Jordan is a former news editor, scriptwriter and media analyst for China Global Television Network

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