White Papers: The Importance of Public Communication

Amb. Kishan S. Rana, Honorary Fellow & Tshering Chonzom Bhutia, PhD, Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Jabin T Jacob, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, recently shared the ‘India Network on China and East Asia’ Google Group (also known as the ICS-Delhi Group) a White paper published on 11 January 2017 by Beijing, entitled ‘China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation’. As some newspaper comments in India have noted, India is ranked in importance at number three, after the US and Russia, but ahead of Japan; the references to India are positive, with no mention of points on which the two countries differ greatly.

China issues white papers from time-to-time on subjects such as family planning, human rights, environment, trade, development, space activities, labor, ecology, non-proliferation, mineral resources, social security, minority policy, gender, intellectual property, democracy, peaceful development, corruption, and so on; it also issues such papers on its declared ‘core issues’ such as Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and ‘Diaoyu Dao’. All these reflect the views of the country’s authoritarian regime, without any semblance of two-way communication with home publics.

This work is carried out mainly by the CCP, working closely with the ministries concerned, as also it’s many official think tanks. They are staffed with talented people. The State Council Information Office (SCIO), established in 1991, is charged with bringing out white papers. The SCIO’s responsibilities include: ‘to assist news media in presenting aspects of China to the world…by coordinating reports for both domestic and foreign journalists, organizing news conferences, and providing books, information, television and film products about China’.

China’s first white paper was entitled ‘Human Rights in China’ (in 1991) produced, in the context of international spotlight on China following the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, and the propaganda element is always strong. This is typical of Communist countries in the Leninist model. For example, the Chinese Communist Party has had a strong propaganda department from its very inception. Propagation of ideology and public communication are two sides of the same coin. Interestingly, the CCP has now dropped the word ‘propaganda’ from the English translation of that department’s name, though Chinese title remains unchanged! That is part of image building.

But we might also take another perspective. Can we learn anything from the method of publishing white papers on foreign policy issues, which is a practice followed in different countries, but relatively uncommon in India? For any government, public communication is important, and white papers are of value, domestically and abroad, as a synthesis of national perspectives. The usage of the term ‘white paper’ is believed to have begun with the British government following Winston Churchill’s white paper in 1922. The European Commission also publishes white papers, which may be preceded by ‘green papers’ and initiate consultations to ascertain public views on a set subject. They are later issued as white papers. Another term for such official reports is ‘blue book’, derived from the color of the document’s cover. Japan’s Gaimusho publishes an annual foreign ministry report called the ‘Diplomatic Bluebook. The Indian practice of annual reports by all ministries that are tabled in Parliament is very sound; many countries do this, but interestingly, such a practice does not exist in some countries such as Germany and Singapore.

The very act of writing such public documents helps to clarify thinking within the government, since inter-ministry consultation is frequently a precondition; this helps to articulate policy in cogent fashion. In India we do not do this often enough. Of course, in a democratic system we have other avenues for public communication, be it parliamentary statements or, responses to public debate. But a white paper or its precursors of varying colors have an impact, and considerable long-term value.

It would be profitable to consider recourse to white papers in India, be it on external or domestic issues. This is part of improved public communication, which is also known today as ‘public diplomacy’.

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