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."