The subject of news media coverage became a small part of Defense Secretary William Cohen's agenda last week as he wound up a visit whose main purpose was to address US- China military relations. In a speech Thursday, Mr. Cohen said the Chinese press often depicts the United States with distortions. But then, prompted by a question from the university audience, Cohen acknowledged that China is sometimes mischaracterized in the US media.
Yet in ongoing attempts to enhance its international profile, China increasingly appears to be drawing lessons from Western-style public relations.
In June, for example, on the eve of the historic summit between the two Koreas, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a special briefing to discuss North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's visit to China.
While the information was skimpy, it was an improvement: The Ministry more routinely asks journalists to read government-run Xinhua News Agency reports to find their answers, or directs reporters to "the relevant departments," where a query is passed around from bureaucrat to bureaucrat like a hot potato.
"In order to change our negative image, it means we have to change our methods," says Zhang Qiyue, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Where there is more information flowing, there is less speculation."
A new foreign press center, more news conferences, and other moves are tentative steps toward a greater willingness to release more information.
In February, the government reacted within hours after a suicide bomber killed himself in Tiananmen Square. Instead of squelching information, the police handed out press releases describing the bomber as a deranged farmer angry about a tax-dodging fine. "That kind of story lends itself to rampant speculation, and that helped dampen it quickly," a Western diplomat says. The case is being held up as an example of how releasing carefully screened information can better control how the media spins an event, says Ms. Zhang.
But how wide the impact of these changes will be remains to be seen. The push for openness is coming from a ministry that is engaged with the outside world, but weaker on the home front. "The Foreign Ministry is only one of several government departments that have control over journalists," says Ted Plafker, president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China. "There are also the law-enforcement and security agencies that oversee reporters. They're certainly sincere and making a genuine and welcome effort to improve our situation, but some of the problems we have are really out of their hands."
There are more than 200 accredited foreign news organizations in China, where journalists are allowed to live only in approved housing, assigned government handlers who monitor their stories, and required to notify the government when they travel. And in a country where even street maps have been regarded as state secrets, would-be sources are leery of reporters. "People are still very reluctant to talk," Mr. Plafker says. "It's the political culture, bureaucratic culture, and the overall culture. From the bureaucrat's point of view, there's not a lot of advantage in talking. But there's a lot of downside. There's no gain they can get, because they can't play the political game like in Washington." Part of the Foreign Ministry's campaign to get officials into the game is to convince more of them to give background interviews. A lot of officials "don't know what 'off the record' means," Zhang notes.
The ministry's efforts still have far to go. In March, the government reacted slowly to Taiwan's election of President Chen Shui-bian, a candidate who has a history of advocating independence from China for the island. Even four days later, a government spokesman told reporters more time was needed to analyze the situation. Part of the problem, one official says, is that the agency which oversees the mainland's relations with Taiwan was caught off-guard by the election of Mr. Chen. Analysts had predicted a moderate candidate would win.
By contrast, after Chen's May 20 inauguration speech, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait had a statement ready in two hours. "They [the Chinese] are now starting to understand that it is useful to involve the press and engage the press and make sure that the press has their side of the story," says Mitch Presnick of APCO Associates, a PR firm.
The idea of putting a spin on a story, however, is not entirely new in China. Early on, the Chinese Communist Party shrewdly gave access to American journalist Edgar Snow, who glowingly portrayed the ragtag army locked in a civil war with the Nationalists in his book "Red Star Over China."
In fact, the idea for a media center has been around since the 1950s. And after the debacle of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government hired PR firm Hill & Knowlton to help patch up relations with the West. Beijing is now shopping around for consultants to polish its image as a potential Olympic host. "Beijing is trying to learn from the US government and other Western countries the way they handle journalists," says Ning Liu, assistant director of Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.
Mr. Liu sites reaction to Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California's report detailing allegations of Chinese stealing of US technology as evidence of increasing sophistication. Instead of taking the moral high ground and issuing vaguely worded condemnations, the government issued a complex set of refutations, even showing reporters during a briefing that many of the so-called secrets are available on the Internet. "They were trying to find a new way to connect to journalists, particularly Western media," Liu says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society