Social media gives govt handlers rough ride

In the summer of 1999, I was preparing to launch the journalism program at Tsinghua University when I got a phone call from Zhao Qizheng, then minister of the State Council Information Office.

Zhao invited me to evaluate his first press conference since he’d been appointed cabinet spokesman a year earlier. The press conference was intended to refute accusations by a US congressional committee that China had stolen nuclear weapons technology.

Using PowerPoint, a cutting-edge communications tool at that time, Zhao put forward a convincing message that Chinese scientists had developed the weapons on their own.

“You gave a perfect presentation of your message,” I told Zhao at a private dinner after the press conference. “But China needs more than one government spokesperson like you. Can you urge the central government to start nationwide training of government media handlers?”

“Be patient and wait,” Zhao said.

Two years later, Zhao invited me for a coffee. “I want you to help me launch a close-door program training government media handlers,” he said.

“But can you redefine the role of Chinese journalists when a government or Party official handles the media?” I said.

“The journalists are neither our enemies nor our friends,” Zhao replied. Zhao was making history with this remark.

For many decades, the Chinese government only allowed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have a spokesman for handling foreign media and foreign journalists. All Chinese media and journalists were defined as the tongues and throats of the Party and they were trusted to be loyal propaganda workers who would always firmly follow the Party line.

Since the CPC Central Committee had not officially approved the government spokesperson system, Zhao and I agreed to name our program “the Workshops for Global Communication.”

It wasn’t until the end of SARS in 2003 that the CPC Central Committee officially approved the launch of our system, which was renamed the “government spokesperson training program.”

The event of 2003 was a watershed for both the Chinese media landscape and government media handlers.

Before the outbreak of SARS, government media handlers focused their attention only on the Western media. But after SARS, government media handlers shifted their attention to handling the Chinese media, which had been growing more and more daring in criticizing the government and local Party organizations. 

Between 2001 and 2010, we trained over 50,000 government spokespersons throughout the country.

But today, the CPC and its government spokespersons are facing fresh worries every day.

In 2007, American scholar Susan Shirk published China: Fragile Superpower, in which she wrote, “The more developed and prosperous the country becomes, the more insecure and threatened they (Chinese leadership) feel.”

The angry coverage of such incidents such as “My father is Li Gang,” the Shanghai fire and the alleged murder of Qian Yunhui, a village head in Leqing, Zhejiang Province has left government officials worried.

Observers say that these signs of social disintegration could ignite political turmoil, like the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, if badly handled.

Seeing a grim prospect, the CPC Central Committee decided last year to set up a nationwide Party spokesperson system in an increasingly unfriendly media environment.

The Communist revolution was intended to build an equal society.  But in reality, the gulf between city and countryside, and rich and poor, has split China in half. Inequalities and abuses are found everywhere, from education to housing to medical care.

A qualified Party spokesperson must have the courage to answer this sensitive political question, already hotly discussed in Beijing classrooms and Guangzhou newsrooms. 

Many government and Party officials feel intimidated from speaking their mind in a media environment where the Party has lost the power to mobilize the society through heavy-handed methods. 

China now has 450 million Internet users, 174 million mobile Internet devices users and 120 million microblog users. Few government and Party spokespersons dare to talk directly to the online audience.

It’s a rough job being a Party media handler. They’re working for the survival of a regime threatened by both corrupt Party officials and popular anger over the growing gulf between rich and poor. 

The author is a professor of Tsinghua University. His blog:

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