Media and Public Relations: March 2008 Archives

Beijing is facing a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario right now in southern Africa, and one that threatens to bring more heat on a central Chinese government already struggling to paint a positive image of itself in the midst of international criticism over the situation in Tibet. At issue is the election in Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe Flag.jpg

As it stands now, the people of Zimbabwe are waiting to find out whether President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF will maintain its 28 year hold on power, or whether the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will take over. Governments the world over are watching this situation quite closely, and none more than Zimbabwe's largest investor, China. But rather than having any sort of concern over losing investment in Zimbabwe, the central government is most likely concerned about what a Mugabe win will do when it comes to public relations on the international stage.

In the lead up to the British handover of Zimbabwe back to its people in 1980, two Marxist factions within the country warred with one another for ultimate supremacy. The then-Soviet Union backed the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), while China put its support behind Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). China bet on the right horse, with Mugabe's ZANU sweeping into power in the 1980 elections. From that point on, the Chinese government has been one of Mr. Mugabe's strongest supporters, and continues to heap aide and investment into his country, despite numerous sanctions levied against the Zimbabwean government over alleged human rights abuses. As such, these elections in Zimbabwe this weekend couldn't have come at a worse time for China.

Many observers believe that Mr. Mugabe will not release his grip on power, even if the polls show that the MDC has won victory. Thumbnail image for Mugabe voting.jpg And, given previous election controversy in Zimbabwe, even if Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF does win, it's highly likely that the results of the vote will be condemned by the majority of the international community, given consistent allegations of vote rigging. Hence the bad PR situation Beijing finds itself in.

If Mr. Mugabe is declared the winner, Beijing will be obligated to sanctify the election results and continue to throw its support behind Mr. Mugabe's government, which will fly in the face of the vast majority of the international community, and will give more fuel for those who would use China's actions as a reason to boycott the Olympics. If Mr. Mugabe loses, but still maintains power, Beijing will be called to the carpet to justify allowing Chinese companies to continue to do business in a country with an illegitimate government.

Tsvangirai voting.jpg The best case scenario for Beijing is the election and safe transition of power to Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC. Whether or not that will happen is anyone's guess over the coming hours and days. If it does, the CPC might lose an ideological partner, but will avoid giving more political ammunition for the anti-China ideologues around the world.

By Hugh Jorgen

I'm no angel; my parents will regrettably attest to that. Taking the family car out for a late-night joy ride when I was 12 years old and getting caught by the cops was probably one of the higher profile moments of my childhood that will forever exclude me from owning my own pair of wings. But if I had to describe myself as either a bad boy or a nice guy, I guess I'd have to put a tentative checkmark in the box next to the latter. So I was somewhat heartened to come across this article on a Harvard University study. This is another one of those "human nature" experiments that tests our innate tendencies toward niceness or nastiness, punishment or rewards. In this particular experiment, researcher Howard Nowak focused on human behavior in brinkmanship-style situations. Essentially, his findings indicate that punishment by adversaries may not be as effective as incentives. More interestingly, adversaries who lean toward offering incentives tend to get what they want. In other words, nice guys do finish first.

It's with this tiny bit of scientific enlightenment that I dare to draw a parallel with the current Tibet conflict in an attempt to glimpse the big picture. In this case, the game would be the "Court of Public Opinion" and the players are obviously native Tibetans vs. the Chinese government. In my humble opinion, regardless of what the magnitude of these protests is or the reason behind them, the Chinese government has lost this round. There are plenty of deep-seated, historical reasons for the protests and the debate continues about who the real victims are. But in a wider context, the reasons for the unrest may not be as important right now as the results of it. The reality is that the damage has been done. Those results, and the opinions and sentiments of the international community, stem, in large part, from credibility - and China's central government has been running low on that for a long time.

Credibility is something that takes a long time to earn, and, like trust, can be lost in an instant. But credibility, and having more of it than your adversary, comes in extremely handy in the court of public opinion. It can make the difference in swaying public opinion in your favor. The Dalai Lama, for instance, has for decades built up vast amounts of international credibility. For starters, he does not and never has advocated violence. He is charismatic and inspirational. He is a man of peace and compassion whose message of mutual respect has been embraced by people and governments from around the world. He welcomes other points of view. He does not seek independence for Tibet. He has repeatedly stated he only seeks a degree of autonomy for Tibet. The Dalai Lama meets with world leaders and average people regularly and - more importantly- he speaks to them in words and language they can understand.

By contrast, the Chinese government is afraid of words. It believes words can somehow lead to destabilizing its grip on power, and as such, it expends colossal amounts of energy and resources to control words. The evidence of this fear is endless. Youtube is blocked, website access is squeezed, foreign reporters are barred from Tibet, and international news broadcasts are censored incessantly. But it goes well beyond just suppressing freedom of speech. It relentlessly propagates its own message through state-run media. Whether it's protests in Tibet or the recent snow job during the spring festival, the message is always the same and always one-sided: the government is in control and the government is doing a wonderful job of looking after the welfare of the Chinese people. Several of my younger Chinese friends, who come from various regions of China, tell me younger generations are becoming increasingly disaffected by what they call empty words from their government. For historical reasons, they say, Chinese leaders have always felt compelled to consistently preach morality to the people. The problem is the message has never been updated and it no longer resonates with large segments of the population. One friend recently told me that the inability of the government to speak to and connect with the people is leading to an ever-widening chasm between Chinese leaders and the younger generations. To achieve the same old predictable message in English, state-run media like Xinhua and CCTV consistently roll out a dusty old basket of archaic phrases. Chris Obrien, a former Xinhua editor, has written a great piece on the garbled language that is constantly churned out by state-run agencies.

This political terminology even has a Chinese name: ti fa. "Unswervingly promoting a moderately prosperous society", "deepening trust in an all-round way", "extending bilateral cooperation for win-win results", and "vowing to strengthen strategic ties with country X" are vague, stiff phrases that are rolled out daily on the propaganda conveyor belt. They sound important, but really don't mean anything.

Let's be clear: every government does propaganda. But there is a difference between effectively controlling the message, and floating out the same old crap. In this case, the PR folks in the central government could use a refresher course on getting their message out to the international community in the 21st century. Wagging your finger at a deeply religious man who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is looked up to by billions of people and trying to convince the world that he is the nefarious mastermind of a "clique" that was instrumental in promoting unrest in his homeland is absolutely pointless. In fact, it makes you look foolish. And how was this menacing "Dalai clique" conjured up? Has the Dalai Lama, as the central government would have us believe, been parading around a Beverly Hills mall with a bunch of valley girls saying things like "That's sooo whatever"? The bottom line is when you try to feed the world and your own people the same old tired one-sided lines, sooner or later most everyone catches on and changes the channel. Bye bye credibility. So when an inevitable crisis comes along and the foreign media smells blood, who are you going to believe? The Nobel Peace Prize winner or the folks who are unswervingly vowing to suppress other points of view, in an all round way? My guess is the score in this latest round is Dalai Lama 1, Chinese central government 0.

The solution to these recurring dilemmas is to start allowing more access to both sides of the story - and there will always be more than one side of the story. If a thinking person doesn't get more than one side of the story, the reaction will always be one of suspicion about the messenger. Stop looking like you have something to hide. If you look like you have something to hide, you probably do. Take your itchy trigger finger off that censor button. In the case of Tibet, open up a dialogue with the indigenous people to find out what they need beyond a flashy new railway and flush toilets. (Had Serbians done a better job of this earlier, cartographers could put their markers and maps back in their desks). Instead of expending vast amounts of energy on trying to convince the world there is no problem in Tibet, use that energy to preempt the inevitable flare-ups. Stop demonizing their spiritual leader and learn what it will take to the ease this simmering resentment. And while you're at it, start talking with the Dalai Lama. He's not such a bad guy. More importantly, he's got international credibility - and he's nice.

It's important to note that the Harvard study focused on individuals, not countries, ethnic groups or governments, but it is not unreasonable to extrapolate the wider implications of this study. As the study's co-author, David Rand, notes from the results: "In general, the thing that is most, sort of, rational and best for your own self-interest is to be nice." That's the kind of message anyone could believe.

Hugh Jorgen works in Chinese state-run media. Zhongnanhai welcomes submissions at cam@zhongnanhaiblog.com.

Gobi Desert.jpgI've thought to myself in the past that I'd rather eat sand than watch a Chinese government news conference. Well... thanks to today's sandstorm and the end of the NPC session, both have become a disturbing reality.

Beijing's proximity to the Gobi Desert aside, what's really got my dander up today isn't the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao spewed a boatload of nothing for an hour to the foreign media news conference...it was the phraseology that this government has adopted when it comes to the situation with the Tibetans, and in particular with their spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama's supporters have now become a 'clique.'

Unlike many of my fellow Westerners, I have very little interest in the Tibetan independence movement. Call it apathy if you will, or perhaps a lack of understanding, but I've become somewhat jaded by the fact that many a self-righteous wanker has jumped onboard the Tibetan cause because it seems like the cool thing to do. I don't begrudge the Tibetans for doing what they think they need to do. Give'r. But don't start preaching to me about the right to freedom and all this other kind of crap because you watched Richard Gere Richard Gere.jpg on Barbara Walters and thought that he made a lot of sense and you really, really liked him in "Pretty Woman." But what I find more highly condescending is the Chinese government's coining of the 'Dalai clique.' I'm sorry...what??? Spiritual Buddhists who are shooting for their autonomy aren't a bunch of 8th graders sitting around at the mall trying to conjure up theories as to how they're going to get someone to pick them up a 12 pack of Schlitz. Call them rebels, traitors, malcontents or whatever. But don't equate these people - the same people you're claiming to want to help - to a high school 'posse' who want to chill in their 'crib.'

I've seen the Dalai Lama speak in person. I'm not religious by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if it turns out there is a god, he/she probably has me on the pious version of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. However, watching him speak, at the time side by side with the Bishop Desmond Tutu in a stadium in Vancouver, I couldn't help but be impressed with the ease in which he cavorted with his religious counterpart and avoided the temptation someone in his position might have had to politicize his speech, instead talking about how love for one's fellow human being is going to be the key to world peace. Dalai and Desmond.jpg I found what he said simple, yet profound in its simplicity. I left the event (which I was covering for work) with a new found respect for a man I really had little knowledge about. So, when the Chinese government starts throwing around juvenile, school yard language to describe those who have respect for the Dalai Lama, I can't help but be personally offended. If I ever happen to cross paths with the spin doctor who coined this distinction, I would have two words: Grow up.

This week's work on the news beat (and I use the term 'news' somewhat sheepishly) has given me an opportunity to reflect on how the lines can often become blurred when it comes to politics, people and our perceptions of both.

Earlier this week I had a chance to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building here in Beijing (a building that must have cost a small fortune, judging by the elaborate art work on display in the lobby) to interview a man by the name of Liu GuijinLiu Guijin.jpg. For those who are not familiar with the name, he is the man that Beijing tapped last year to be China's special envoy to Darfur. As such, Mr. Liu has been the subject of a lot of intense scrutiny and has been labeled by many people as the poster boy for China's involvement in Sudan. (which, as we all are pretty well aware, isn't looked upon very favorably by a lot of folks around the world) I'm not going to bother going into a lot of what Mr. Liu had to say during our 30 minute interview (complete with video, much to my embarrassment, on this link),me and liu guijin2.jpg mainly because it was all on message and never strayed from the Chinese government's consistent stance, which is that China is being unfairly criticized in the media and by foreign governments for not doing enough to stop the fighting. And, I don't really want to bother getting into the debate over whether or not this contention is correct. (but you folks go right ahead, if that tickles your fancy) But what I did find somewhat interesting was our chat after the microphone was off.

Because I've been in the media for over 10 years now, I have rubbed shoulders with my fair share of politicians and diplomats. Of course, most often this has always been in an official capacity. Generally politicians and members of the media rarely go beyond the politician/reporter relationship, mainly because the politician is worried about the reporter writing about the man behind the message, and the reporter is worried that if they get too close to the politician it will obscure their objectivity. That being said, I've come to know a good number of politicians on a more personal level. Some are generally good folks, others are complete wankers. And in the case of Mr. Liu, I have to say that I found him to be in the former. Mr. Liu knew that I am Canadian, and was quick to point out that his wife was one of the first students in China to be allowed to study abroad in Canada in the 1970's. (He said she studied at the University of Ottawa and at UBC in Vancouver) He also revealed that his own university education in Shanghai was cut off after one year by the start of the Cultural Revolution, and that he was one of the thousands of 'rusticated youth' who were sent out the countryside - as Mr. Liu somewhat dismissively and, with the ever so slight tinge of distain, said was - to further reduce their bourgeoisie tendencies. He also admitted that while he's happy to be serving his government, the Darfur gig is something he won't want to be doing for the foreseeable future. Bottom line, I would add Liu Guijin to the list of politicians that I wouldn't mind sitting down and having a beer with.

My interview got me to thinking afterward, though, about how often times we perceive politics as personality. I have lost count of how many times listeners to the various radio stations I've worked at will call up and criticize either myself, my colleagues or the people we interview in personal, and often scathing attacks because they didn't agree with how the story was portrayed or the politics or message that said interviewee was putting forward. Same thing happens all the time in the blogosphere as well. And, to be honest, being in the public spotlight, if these types of things don't roll off you, they'll eat you alive. As such, you just learn to accept that people consider you a free public service or tool at their disposal to treat as they will. So this leads me to my main question for you: Can, or should, we separate the message from the man, or is the man's (or woman's, of course) character invariably linked to the message they put out?

This week has seen a new first for me here in China, and one that I'm actually hesitant to admit: I was actively captivated by something on Chinese television. I know, I know... it's hard to imagine, but it's true. But before you start calling me a sellout, a turncoat, mindless or downright insane, allow me to explain. I was about to pop in a DVD on Wednesday evening when something on the tube caught my attention. No, it wasn't CCTV's rousing coverage of 两会 (the CPPCC and NPC sessions) or some scantily-clad woman belting out Mando-pop. It was actually a documentary on CCTV 6, the movie channel. Wednesday, March 5th, happens to be the late Premier Zhou Enlai's birthday. zhou older.jpg (Rather than going into the details of his life, if you're interested in learning his past, I'll direct you to the Granite Studio for Zhou's past particulars) As such, CCTV 6 aired a retrospective of his life. And while watching, a couple of things really stood out in my mind. Firstly, it's amazing how little the propaganda has changed on CCTV from the 60's, through the Cultural Revolution to today! Though it was all in Chinese, and despite my somewhat limited comprehension skills, I was able to glean enough of what was being said to realize that this was an unabashed, glowing review of the late Premier's life, which included film of him meeting the masses, who all wore broad smiles and clamored to shake his hand and be next to him, along with soulful discussions about how he adored his wife, Deng Yingchao, and how, though he and the missus had no children of their own, the late Premier was like a father to the children of China. deng yingchao.jpg While trying not to wretch and throw my shoe through the TV because of the language being spouted, I did find it really interesting to watch the old footage of China during the Great Leap Forward, much of which I had never seen before. And watching it, all I could think was 'Damn that must have been a crappy existence for the average person back then!' The other thing about the documentary that really jumped out at me was there was - during the hour I watched at least - no film of him with Chairman Mao. The only time you saw Mao at all was if there was footage of Zhou Enlai standing in front of Tian'anmen, in the Great Hall of the People or in some peasant's house where a picture of the Helmsman was mandatory art work. Now I don't know if the people who put this documentary together did this intentionally or not, but it got me thinking about both the perceptions and the realities of Zhou Enlai as the Premier of China.

Talk to the average Chinese person today and they'll tell you that while they respect Mao Zedong for one thing or another, most will freely admit that he wasn't the greatest guy and that he made a number of mistakes along the way. But ask them what they think of Zhou Enlai, and virtually every one of them will have nothing but glowing praise for the man. As has been put to me on more than one occasion, 'Chinese people are often quick to question the top leader (obviously, not publicly very often) but almost always adore the Premier.' But when I ask these same people about why they revere Zhou Enlai so much, I'm generally never given anything more than 'he was a good man.' The question I have is: Who says? What do we actually know about Zhou Enlai? Sure, we know his official biography. And yes, the propaganda newsreels in the aforementioned documentary show a gleeful peasantry hanging off his every word and looking upon him like a 6 year old daughter does her father. And sure, international leaders of the day were quick to call him one of the best statesmen they have ever met. zhou and nixon.jpg
But what don't we know about him? This is the same Premier who - along with the rest of the CPC - blindly followed down Mao's destructive paths of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This is the same Premier who stood by while massive government and non-government purges were taking place across this country. This is the same Premier who, while moving to save dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cultural relics during the height of the Cultural Revolution, also allowed thousands more to be forever lost to history. So were his hands really tied during these times by a repressive Mao Zedong? Or was he complicit in helping Mao screw up 30% of the time? (Official CPC figure) Is this the reason the makers of Wednesday's documentary kept Mao out of the film? Does the CPC not want to paint Zhou Enlai with Mao's somewhat tarnished brush?

I freely admit I'm somewhat arm-chairing this particular post, mainly because I don't think I've done nearly enough reading about Zhou Enlai. As such, I implore all out there to give me your thoughts on this man, good or bad.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Media and Public Relations category from March 2008.

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