Dozens of reporters surround Wang Yongping, former spokesman for the Ministry of Railways, after a press conference on July 24, a day after a deadly train crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. Photo: CFP
It’s been tough for Feng Nai’en to get a good night’s sleep lately. The spokesman for the Palace Museum in Beijing has found it hard to grab any sleep because his phone has been ringing off the hook day and night. On top of that, his e-mail is filled with interview requests.
Wang Yongping, spokesman for the Ministry of Railways, is not facing the same stress because he was dismissed from office on Tuesday.
Wang has been transferred to Poland as China’s representative to the Organization of Railways Cooperation in Poland, according to reports. “I’ll stay far away from the media. I’m looking for quiet life,” he was quoted as saying.
Whenever a serious situation arises, government spokesmen are placed on the hot seat, said Liu Xiaoying, a journalism professor at the Communications University of China.
“The rapidly developing new media has reduced spokesmen to a disadvantaged group that knows even less information than Web users. Spokesmen are being confronted with high pressures and great challenges,” Liu told the Global Times.
No developed system
The development of China’s government spokesperson system dates back to 1983, when spokespersons were desperately needed for foreign affairs.
The group, mainly for the central government, did not see a large-scale expansion until the SARS crisis in 2003. The concealing of information in the early stage of the crisis led to delay in decision making.
After the crisis, the State Council Information Office (SCIO) started a training class for news spokespeople, with more than 100 spokespersons from 66 government departments participating in September 2003.
The Regulation on the Disclosure of Government Information, the legal foundation of the news spokesperson system, was implemented in 2008.
Last year alone, more than 1,700 central government and provincial-level press conferences were held.
Wang Xuming, former spokesman of the Ministry of Education, told the Global Times that because of a traditional view that “Evil comes from the mouth” and the fact no punishment befell those who do not say anything to the public, what bewildered the spokespersons most was if they should talk, what to say and how to say it well.
At a press conference held by the Ministry of Railways on July 24 following the deadly train crash a day before, spokesman Wang Yongping’s controversial responses to questions infuriated the public.
When asked why rescue workers had buried train carriages at the crash site so early, he replied the rescuers made the decision to make their rescue work easier. “Whether you believe this explanation or not, I do,” he said at the conference.
Wang again came under severe criticism for saying the survival of a two-year-old girl was a “miracle.” The girl was discovered after local police officers had insisted on searching the carriage even though the ministry had allegedly called off the rescue operation.
Spokesperson Feng of the Palace Museum was also in trouble after media revealed nine scandals about the museum in the past three months.
When asked at a media conference about the number of porcelain collections in the museum, Feng said, “I have no idea, since I’m not involved in their business.” The public relations department also told reporters the exact figures “depends on what is reported by China Central Television,” according to reports.
The way out
Liu, who also has six years’ experience in training spokespeople, said cultivating professional spokespeople is the key to avoiding unprofessional situations.
“More than 90 percent of spokespersons in Western countries have media experience, while in China, most of them were officials who are selected to hold the ‘spokesperson’ position as their part-time job,” Liu said.
At the end of 2004, the SCIO publicized the list and telephone numbers of 75 spokesmen from 62 government departments, while in December 2010, it was found only 13 of them remained, most of the others were promoted to higher positions, according to the Beijing News.
Mao Qun’an, spokesman at the Ministry of Health, said in a television interview in 2009 he doesn’t think he is suitable to be a spokesman.
“With only a medical background, I feel it’s difficult to do the communications job well,” he said.
Mao was transferred to director of the Publicity Center for the Ministry of Health in 2008 and then hardly appeared in public as spokesman for the ministry.
Cultivating professional spokespeople means finding someone who can speak on a common level and specializes in collecting information, Liu said.
“A spokesman can handle the press conferences for most affairs, but when catastrophic events happen, he or she can’t replace the leaders of an organization.”
“Once the system matures, it will naturally dispel the rumor spokesmen are sheltering some leaders from shouldering responsibilities or facing the public rather than telling the public the truth,” Liu said.
Li Jiayu contributed to this story