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."