Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gives an open press conference just once a year, to mark the end of the annual 10-day session of the country’s toothless parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC). Over a thousand journalists, diplomats and government officials gather in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square to witness an event which is broadcast live across the nation with a handy five-second delay so any embarrassing incidents can be quickly excised.
The entire spectacle is carefully scripted, with journalists from domestic and international media handpicked in advance and their questions approved by the Premier’s office. So this year the crowded hall was surprised when an elderly gentleman claiming to be from an obscure Taiwan human rights journal got to his feet and launched into a verbal protest.
Within seconds a clutch of state security agents had descended on the man but, with an almost imperceptible signal, officials kept them at bay. With a great flourish and exhibition of magnanimity, the Premier turned to the elderly man and said he should be allowed to speak. The man’s question was a request for more information on government efforts to address environmental problems – something the Communist Party actually encourages the media to report.
After the conference, the elderly gentleman told waiting reporters that China is a free country where dissenting opinions can be expressed openly and without fear of reprisal. Most journalists were convinced this man was planted in the audience by the government in an elaborate attempt to manipulate the press.
This episode highlights an evolutionary leap in the government’s handling of domestic and international media. In a country where the second and third estates barely exist, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect the authorities to pay much attention to the fourth. However, a noticeable shift has come about since commercialization of the media began a few years ago.
The propaganda apparatus continues to employ the heavy-handed tactics of the past by shutting intransigent publications and jailing obstinate journalists. But there is a growing sophistication within many government departments and state-owned enterprises when it comes to public relations.
One of the earliest examples of a softer, more image-conscious approach came soon after the end of the SARS crisis in 2003. The government gave a medal to Jiang Yanyong, the whistle-blowing doctor who first told the world the true extent of Chinese infections. Admittedly he was later detained and briefly banished to Xinjiang province (China’s equivalent of Siberia), but Beijing’s first reaction to reward Dr Jiang for his honesty and courage was an early sign of the newfound media savvy among the fourth generation of leaders.
This move is being led by the growing number of Western-educated returnees entering the middle levels of government and by the steady decentralization of political power. With the continued advance of the Internet, the inability of the government to effectively suppress information has led to an emphasis on "managing the message".
One area where there has been a massive change in attitude is the rapidly reforming but still state-dominated financial sector. As the government pushes the state-owned commercial banking behemoths into the welcoming arms of international investors, the managers of these banks are waking up to the importance of public perception.
In mid-February the management of China Construction Bank (CCB), which last October became the first of the Big Four banks to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, made a very unusual decision. According to people who attended the meeting, the bank contacted several journalists late one evening and told them the executive vice chairman would grant them an interview the following morning.
When the journalists arrived they were ushered into the executive vice chairman’s office and treated to a half-hour point-by-point briefing on the bank’s numerous shortcomings. At the end of the "interview", the journalists were led out and asked to ensure an article was published the next day. They were told if they ever wanted to get another interview with CCB the story should be prominently displayed.
The entire incident became much less puzzling when the journalists checked the bank’s stock price from the preceding three days. It had risen more than 10% on speculation that CCB would be included in the Hang Seng Index later in the year.
As the bank’s share price rose, the management decided to use the media to manage market expectations and so, in their own clumsy way, they were engaging in a pioneering public relations exercise. Their goal was partially achieved when the press reported that senior CCB managers were trying to talk down their own stock.
These first rudimentary steps towards a more sophisticated handling of the press and public perceptions are a sign of things to come. For Chinese officials, who unlike their US peers don’t have to worry about re-election every couple of years, there is still little to be gained from talking to the press. But there is a growing awareness of the importance of massaging the message for an increasingly commercialized and aggressive media. And now there’s also the stock price to consider too.