Beijing hires a media guru
By Cristian Segura
BEIJING - Former journalist Dong Guanpeng, once a famous China Central Television (CCTV) anchor, was busy one afternoon last August answering questions from the foreign reporters in Beijing. He talked in a friendly and colloquial way. His attire was casual but elegant, and he made jokes and acted with grace. The qualities fit perfectly with his public relations role, but are rare in the organization he represents: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Dong is a top adviser on the Chinese government's communication and media policy. He also teaches at the State Council's National School of Administration and is the director of Tsinghua University's Global Journalism Institute. His work is part of CCP efforts to strength its public support using communication
strategies of the 21st century.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) hosted Dong's speech and it was an unusual occasion to listen to a first-hand description of the CCP's communications strategy. The FCCC announced that Global Times editor Wang Wen - Global Times is a CCP newspaper published in English - was going to give a speech together with Dong. But at the very last moment, Wang withdrew his participation, officially because he was not aware that the conference was on the record.
In 2003, CCP officials reacted to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak first with silence and later provided false information about the real threat of the disease. That angered society and the rage soon appeared on the Internet, on the street and even within official media. Official records from that time confirm that the CCP began to modernize its public voice during the SARS crisis.
But something else happened in 2003 that sped up the change in mentality: Beijing hosted the first meeting of six-party talks on the North Korea's nuclear program, and the international media covering the discussions were deeply unsatisfied with the lack of information released by the organizer.
"They said that China had a lot of secrets to hide. But that's not true," said Dong. "There were not many things to hide. The problem was that we didn't have the experience to communicate because we had not done it before." That conflict made the CCP realize that being an international player involves allowing some transparency with your allies.
The CCP currently use strict codes to guide central and provincial government leaders on their communication duties. They are even scrutinized for the number of annual press conferences, according to Dong. He himself has written specific codes for Chinese officials to follow in crisis situations. These handbooks detail that public officers should reach journalists "as soon as possible and provide them with rich enough and updated information". To organize press conferences and establish a media center shall be priorities "to prevent journalists from looking for other sources".
The era when the CCP kept silent in the face of public opinion has been substituted with a hyperactive communications strategy. There was a useful anecdote in Dong's speech that helps one understand the results of this transformation. In 2005, several delegations of Chinese representatives were staying in Washington to prepare the first US tour of President Hu Jintao. During a briefing with American journalists, one high-ranking Chinese officer was asked why he thought that, compared with the past, there were "so many good news stories about China" in the US press. "Because we are now the ones who write the news," was the reply.
Pluralism and criticism are a dangerous business for the Chinese media. The CCP welcomes reporting by local journalists on corruption, but only if they do not cross the no-return line. "To criticize the government is a risk. Journalism is managed to legitimate first the government and then the party," commented Dong. A remarkable example of this restraint was exposed last July in The New Yorker. The magazine published a wide profile of Hu Shuli, the editor of Caijing, one of the most rigorous and liberal print media titles in China.
After interviewing Hu, Caijing's shareholders and a few of its reporters, the author of The New Yorker article asserted that they use a "language of loyal opposition" because instead of pointing out without hesitation the mistakes committed by the authorities, Caijing will ask for reforms on this or that matter.
The Internet is now the main propaganda channel for the CCP, but it is also a threat. People find the web is the freest place to express their opinions. Because of that, there are many websites blocked in China. In a case such as social networking website Facebook, Dong assured it is banned because Tibetan and Uyghur "terrorist" groups use it to spread their messages and therefore, Facebook has been labeled a "national security risk".
But the Internet is also used by common citizens to denounce government irregularities: 84 high representatives of the CCP and the public administration have stepped down from their posts after their misconduct was published online. Most of them were prosecuted by netizens in what is called the "human-flesh hunt". This phenomenon is so popular that a few weeks ago a film about it was released called Invisible Killer. The movie tells the story of a man and a woman who have an affair and are chased by netizens claiming they deserve to be punished for their infidelity.
Xie Xiadong, producer of Invisible Killer , defended the film during a preview, saying that there is a real need for the law to control this "cyber-harassment" because often innocent people become victims and their private information is shown online. Xie said the government is trying to put limits on online vigilantes but faces difficulties because Chinese law should first define privacy rights more accurately.
Effective communication has become a mantra for the CCP. Seventeen out of the 31 provincial secretary generals have previously worked at the party's information office. Communication experts have taken high positions that traditionally were reserved for engineers. Dong believes that the next step will be to achieve international recognition for the Chinese media: to see CCTV or the People's Daily quoted as respected sources by the foreign media. One would argue that this as unlikely since every Chinese television, newspaper or magazine must first send any news reports to censors.
But Dong said Western media also have their own political and business interests. He said that the key to being recognized abroad is for Chinese journalists to be more creative and to create the proper platforms to release news in foreign languages.
Cristian Segura is Beijing correspondent of the Spanish daily newspaper AVUI.