The Muddle Kingdom

China has a serious PR problem.

Guang Niu/Getty Images
Guang Niu/Getty Images

Wang Xuming is different. Unlike other Chinese officials, he actually enjoys communicating with the world outside of the Communist Party. As a spokesman for the Ministry of Education, he released his cell phone number to the media. "I was available 24 hours a day," he told me in November. "There are some journalists with mental disorders who would call me at 10 or 11 at night. Of course I don’t mean you," he added with a smile. He peppers his speech with flowery expressions and blunt asides, unlike his counterparts, who often sound like Karl Marx audiobooks. Remarkably, he would actually admit when he didn’t know anything. Chinese reporters saw him as a rare light in Beijing’s darkness, which is why he was fired in 2008 for being too outspoken.

Both domestically and internationally, the Chinese Communist Party has a public-relations problem: Its officials do not know how to communicate with the media. Decision making is highly centralized, and the relatively low-ranking officials tasked with speaking to reporters don’t want to offend their superiors by saying the wrong thing. Although Reporters Without Borders ranks China’s media as 174th in its latest Press Freedom Index, just slightly better than Iran and worse than Sudan, news is transmitted through Twitter-like micro-blogging services, of which roughly 250 million Chinese use. Though few expect China’s stilted state-run media to be crusaders for change, there are more independent newspapers, like the business magazine Caixin and the newspaper the Southern Metropolis Daily, and journalists there increasingly ask difficult questions about everything from pollution cover-ups to low-level official corruption.

Spokesmen, though, hide from the domestic and international press. Besides Wang, all of the half-dozen current and former spokespeople I’ve met have declined to give me their contact information besides a general office phone number. Wringing a comment from a government ministry more often than not involves the request to fax a list of questions, which are rarely answered.

And when poorly trained spokesmen and officials do speak, PR disasters often ensue. On Tuesday, rumors swirled online that a vice mayor named Wang Lijun in the city of Chongqing attempted to defect to the United States (the State Department on Wednesday confirmed only that he had met officials at the consulate and left "of his own volition"). Wang shot to fame for overseeing Chongqing’s highly publicized fight against organized crime, and a scandal involving Wang could hurt Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s chance of promotion. The Chongqing government’s official microblog responded that Wang was taking a "vacation-style leave." This ridiculous response drew 21,000 comments and has been re-tweeted an astonishing 60,000 times, blowing up the story domestically. "This style of PR really makes me disappointed by the government," wrote one Weibo user. "What a sense of humor!" wrote another.

After a high-speed train crashed in Wenzhou last year, killing 40 people, the railway ministry tried to clean up the accident before an official investigation could take place. The railways spokesman claimed, unconvincingly, that this was done to aid rescuers. He told reporters, "Whether you believe it or not, I believe it anyway." The ministry sacked the spokesmen, the fourth ministry official to be fired after the crash, but his remarks only added to public anger and added to grassroots pressure for the government to reform the ministry.

China faces a worse PR problem internationally. After the Nobel Committee awarded imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize in 2010, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman called the decision "blasphemy," a response that immediately fueled comparisons between China’s response and that of Nazi Germany, when the Nobel Committee awarded the prize to a German dissident. The Western world perceives the Chinese government as unreasonable toward the Tibetans in part because of its officials’ tendency to issue tin-eared statements calling the Dalai Lama names like a "wolf in monk’s robes."

Chinese government officials complain of an anti-Chinese bias in Western media, but the foreign journalists whose reporting shapes Chinese perception almost always have a difficult time getting the Chinese government’s side of the story. Government officials and spokesmen rarely give interviews. Chinese dissidents are generally far more media savvy. The Dalai Lama has given hundreds of one-on-one interviews to foreign media. So has dissident artist Ai Weiwei. President Hu Jintao has given none. With the exception of Premier Wen Jiabao, for the past few years neither have any of the other members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, ostensibly the nine most powerful men in the country.

Yiyi Lu, a former Chatham House fellow and expert on Chinese civil society, wrote a paper entitled "Challenges for China’s International Communication," due to be published in April.  She reports that China’s bureaucratic system punish those who make mistakes when talking to journalists but doesn’t reward those who say positive things, creating strong disincentive for officials to engage the media. In addition, "spokespersons dare not comment on officials who are more senior than them. Since most spokespersons are middle-ranking officials, it means many topics are off limits," she writes.

Things used to be much worse. One of the Communist Party’s founding mandates was to "thoroughly break off connection of any kind with bourgeois intellectuals and similar parties," and the country was closed to outsiders for much of the Mao years. China first appointed a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in 1983 who held weekly press conferences but didn’t allow questions; the second spokesman appeared in the Taiwan Affairs Office in 2000. After being slow to respond to successive PR disasters, like the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the Tibetan riots in 2008, the government has made it more of a priority to try to present its side of the story to the international media, but has yet to set up a functioning system of spokespeople.

"I think today’s spokespeople are in a bottleneck period," says Wang, the ousted Education Ministry spokesman, who now directs the ministry’s Language and Culture Press. "The question of whether or not there are spokesmen in China has already been solved. The far more difficult question is what should spokesman say, and should they say anything at all?"

But instead of focusing on domestic accountability or openness, the Chinese government has been investing heavily in the internationalization of its own TV and news stations, to counter what it perceives to be anti-Chinese bias in the Western media. The state broadcaster CCTV yesterday launched a new program in English called CCTV America, which it says will "project China" to the world. The central government has reportedly committed $6 billion to the global expansion of its state run media. But by allowing its spokesman and officials to actually say something and convincingly present their side of the story would go a long way to countering perceived media bias.

That is the goal of Wang, who has become China’s most vocal spokesmen for spokespeople: He released a book last month about how to be a good government spokesperson in China, and he has criticized his former brethren in print and other media. "Our party is very great," he says. "But party, government, is very abstract. The way we understand it is through people. I hope we can have flesh and blood spokespeople." He adds, "Spokespeople cannot be useless, like deaf people’s ears. If a spokesperson doesn’t speak, than he’s not a real spokesperson."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola