“Citizen diplomacy” is a two-edged sword. While ideologues can easily turn it into propaganda, Tai Ji Men offers a virtuous example of how it can effectively work.

by Marco Respinti

*A paper presented at the webinar “Tai Ji Men: Citizen Diplomacy for Peace and Justice,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on April 24, 2022, United Nations International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on May 4th, 2022.

American physicist Robert W. Fuller, the pioneer of citizen diplomacy during the Cold War. Credits.
American physicist Robert W. Fuller, the pioneer of citizen diplomacy during the Cold War. Credits.

Diplomatic relationships among countries are commonly held in great respect, and rightly so. In fact, when a country, by means of its ambassadors, openly moves in one or another direction, it deserves front page news. The presence of official diplomatic bodies in a country is a sign of peace or at least of good intentions. On the contrary, when a country calls its ambassadors back, tensions and crises are at the door, and when ambassadors are withdrawn, the winds of war, if not actual war, is in the air.

The importance of official diplomacy is of course its officiality, but officiality is a double-edged sword. Official bodies may sometimes be slow and too timid to take substantial action. We should, thus, never underestimate what another form of diplomacy can accomplish. It is the “citizen diplomacy.” With its parallel and sometimes even confidential ways, “citizen diplomacy” may move in a quicker and to some extent lighter way.

The roots of the concept belong to the time when the West confronted the Soviet Union. These two rivals fought a Cold War, so cold that official diplomacy was frozen. At that point, parallel initiatives tried to fill the gap of what it looked like a never-ending stalemate.

It is frequent to see “citizen diplomacy” at work through indirect tools like scientific and cultural exchanges, or even sport. As such, “citizen diplomacy” is the work of self-styled, volunteer ambassadors of good will, who treasure mutual understanding among people and peace among nations. Due to its more informal attitude and the fact that it does not need a public proscenium, a “citizen diplomacy” can or could accomplish much. Its more-ethics-and-less-etiquette attitude may achieve goals that official diplomacy does not even dream of.

In many ways, “citizen diplomacy” comes from the same source as advocacy from civil society, and we all know how these twins, when operated by NGOs, organized groups, or popular influencers, can be effective, even compelling governments and their official diplomacies to act.

This explains the tendency of supporters of various causes to enroll VIPs, well-known testimonials, and “pop authorities” (like actors, rock singers and fashion models, for example) to advance a case, make a statement, or launch a campaign.

In brief, one of the great advantages of “citizen diplomacy” is that its public accountability is much less legally binding that that of official diplomacy.

But this strength signals also the limits of “citizen diplomacy,” when unscrupulous minds arbitrarily translate all this into fabricated arguments to serve selfish interests or, worse, ideological causes.

Traveling to Ukraine

This is the case of those Hungarian-born American political sociologist Paul Hollander (1932–2019) labelled as “political pilgrims” in a 1981 book of the same title, as important as it is neglected today. There, he researches and describes the fate of those famous Western intellectuals who, in various decades, made field trips to such places as the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Castroist Cuba, where human rights were held in great contempt and persecution of religions, minority ethnic groups, and dissidents was a daily nightmare.

Hollander was a serious scholar and an amiable person. Years ago, in Spain, I discussed the topic of his book with him. The aim of those “political pilgrims”–he believed–was to support those regimes and discredit all possible criticism of them.

Chief among those intellectual collaborationists were English sociologist and economist Beatrice Potter (1858–1943)–not to be confused with contemporary writer and fellow countrywoman Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), inventor of the lovely Peter Rabbit tales–and her husband, Sydney Webb, Lord Passfield (1859–1947), Labour Party politician and later cabinet minister, one of the stars of the English Fabian Society who even helped founding the prestigious London School of Economics.

Sydney and Beatrice Webb. Credits.
Sydney and Beatrice Webb. Credits.

Other literary celebrities of that lot were Irish writer and playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), French writer and future Gaullist André Malraux (1901–196), French journalist and writer Henri Barbusse (1873–1935), and American writer Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), among others. Students often study them in schools as luminaries but are taught nothing of their “citizen diplomacy” that unfortunately ended up supporting bloody regimes.

Let me indulge a little bit more on the dark side of “citizen diplomacy” underlining the case of The New York Times Anglo-American journalist Walter Duranty (1884–1957), a man who won the Pulitzer Prize for denying the Holodomor, or the slaughter of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. At that time, the lucid folly of Stalin starved an entire nation to death both to punish it for its resistance to Marxist forced collectivism (and we all know how much Ukrainians can resist evil) and to force reality to obey the totally exposed biological fallacies of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976).

Rejecting sounder genetic knowledge advanced by Moravian Benedictine abbot Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), Lysenko applied class theory to agriculture–yes, literally, class theory to agriculture. He was of course never able to make the earth execute its ideological orders and in the end greatly contributed to the great Ukrainian famine.

It is noteworthy that, while serious Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943) was sent to death for daring criticizing Lysenko, whom he once supported, the discredited theories of Lysenko fascinated Mao Zedong (1893–1976), who imported them into Communist China, He tried to put them into practice from 1958 to the Great Famine of 1959–1962, which again caused millions of deaths.

Walter Duranty. Credits.
Walter Duranty. Credits.

Well, journalist Duranty did his best to cover the crimes of Stalin up, as well as the genocide in Ukraine, using the high pulpit of such an important newspaper as The New York Times and later the umbrella of the Pulitzer Prize. It was thus a blessing that his infamous example of a corrupt “citizen diplomacy,” just aimed at fooling people through evil propaganda, was counteracted by the reports of such brave journalists as Englishman Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990) and Welshman Gareth Jones (1905–1935).

The latter is also the subject of a 2019 movie, “Mr. Jones,” directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. But as the reputation of villains is only a matter of price, their shame knows no mercy: so, Jones—a fulgid example of a rightful “citizen diplomacy” in the shape of good journalism—was himself falsely attacked, also in the West, as a supposed supporter of Fascist powers.

No, this man in love with truth was not a Fascist. A definitive book by Welsh author Margaret Siriol Colley (1925–2011), herself the niece of Jones, “More Than a Grain of Truth” (first edition 2005, second edition 2020), proves it beyond any doubt. By the way, Jones was killed in China, probably by the Soviet NKVD.

Soldiers and dictators

Mine here is a cautionary tale on the possible misuse of “citizen diplomacy.” But, again, what is “citizen diplomacy” at its core?

Media are increasingly becoming familiar with “citizen journalists,” indispensable in reporting the truth beyond official propaganda, as we at Bitter Winter know quite well, in the case of countries where journalists are persecuted. But I found no better way to respond to the above question than by comparing “citizen diplomacy” to another concept: the “citizen-soldier.” This comparison may sound odd, since we are of course speaking of the good use of diplomacy to achieve peace. But I have my reasons to propose it.

No one really knows when and where the concept of a “citizen soldier” was born. We have examples in antiquity as well as in the modern age, from ancient Rome to feudal times, from the American Revolution to Tyrol and “la Vendée Militaire,” i.e., the revolt of peasants in Western France against the Terror of the French Revolution.

Instead of a body of people compelled to serve in arms the state and its ends, perhaps serving at the same time the state’s ideology and its misdeeds, the concept of “citizen soldiers” left the defense of the city to a volunteer operation of free citizens, who took arms as the last resort, did it for a very limited aim and time, and then returned to their ordinary occupations and families.

The language of the ancient Germanic tribes, whose culture has been an essential element of the European civilization, had a word for it. The Langobards spoke of “arimannia” to indicate the concept of “free men in arms.” This entered the Middle Ages and should not be equivocated. It means that only soldiers who are free citizens rather than people who fight because they are compelled to do it can conceive the moral duty of defending their households and the motherland, because their freedom is essentially of a mental and spiritual nature.

This citizen voluntary militia aimed at the common good and temporarily fighting in war had also an eminent political counterpart in classical Roman time. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (c. 519–c.430 BC) was a Roman aristocrat who lived during the age of the republic. He strongly opposed the demagogy of his times, never put his interests above those of the “res publica,” and finally retired to work in his own small farm. One day, Rome was invaded by the Aequi, a nation that the Romans considered barbaric.

Brave, mature and reliable, Cincinnatus was appointed commander-in-chief of the republic because of its well-known civic virtues, with the title of “dictator”. In its original meaning the word “dictator” was not as scary as it is today, as it just indicated a single ruler appointed in case of a clear and imminent danger, able to move quickly and safely—and it was a temporary position.

But, of course, a single human who is given total power is often dangerous, hence the modern meaning of dictatorship that we all fear. Cincinnatus, however, was a man of honor, and once his mandate was over, and the threat to the city had vanished, he gave back the power to the republic and returned to work in his farm.

Juan Antonio Ribera (1779–1860), “Cincinnatus leaving the plows to make laws in Rome.” Credits.
Juan Antonio Ribera (1779–1860), “Cincinnatus leaving the plows to make laws in Rome.” Credits.

Enter Tai Ji Men

I told you a tale of love for the city. So far, praising the citizen-journalist, we have encountered the citizen-soldier, the citizen-politician, and the citizen-diplomat. All of them are examples of public virtue, and all these examples have limits that must be carefully respected, least we fall into the dark side of our story.

Now, peace enters this discourse when we reflect upon the fact that the true meaning of any civic obligation and citizen sense of duty is to bring about peace. Although German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who has today many followers, disagreed, in fact only peace makes civilization prosper, because peace is the true name of progress. A woman or a man are loyal citizens of their country only if they cultivate the common good, and the common good is the real fabric of every legitimate self-love. The only way to serve the common good as soldiers, politicians, diplomats, and even journalists, is then to work for peace.

Often, governments are not able to secure peace and make civilization advance. It happens because governments may be very remote from the real daily life of their citizens, and at loss to understand the civic responsibility and moral sense of duty that fathers and mothers feel toward the present and the future.

This is where Tai Ji Men enters our story. Its advocacy for peace is a formidable tool, which in turns makes civilization thrive. Its advocacy is an example of peace in action because it is peaceful as well as determined.

Tai Ji Men’s citizen diplomacy has pursued what I would call a pre-political aim: call the attention of political and religious leaders to conscience. Before discussing specific situations and conflicts it is essential to acknowledge that problems can be solved only after the primacy of conscience has been recognized.

An outside observer might have predicted that persecution and harassment in Taiwan through what we all call the Tai Ji Men case would have derailed the efforts of Dr. Hong Tao-Tze and his dizi as citizen diplomats. In fact, this did not happen. Actually, persecution and tax harassment reinforced the determination of Tai Ji Men in advocating internationally for conscience and a civilization of peace and love.

Tai Ji Men serves as an example for all advocacy groups aimed to substantiate “citizen diplomacy” in opposition to Hollander’s “political pilgrims” and a man without conscience as Duranty.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

Tai Ji Men should be imitated. I conclude explaining why.

Tai Ji Men dizi are firm in protesting when protest is needed. Yet, when they bring their message of peace, love and conscience to the world, they focus on the positive side of how harmonious and well-ordered a world where the primacy of conscience is acknowledged would be.

Basically, the citizen-ambassadors of Tai Ji Men are repeating to the whole world what Augustine of Hippo (354–430) said centuries ago: “Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. Domestic peace is the well-ordered concord between those of the family who rule and those who obey. Civil peace is a similar concord among the citizens. […] The peace of all things is the tranquility of order. Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place (“De Civitate Dei,” 19, 13, in Philip Schaff [1819–1893] et alii eds., “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I, Volume II,” 1885: T&T Clark, Edinburgh, transl. Rev Marcus Dodds [1834–1909]). In sum, the other name of peace is justice.

I have the impression that today, thanks to the Tai Ji Men dizi’s long suffering, which motivated them to look at the world with a compassionate gaze, we are writing a new important chapter in the history of “citizen diplomacy.”