The Off-Message Government

When the government instituted an extensive new spokesperson system, in the wake of the SARS crisis, official media swooned. No one ever really expected a panacea of openness, of course. But people did expect ministerial spokespersons to forge more confusion than clarity. Some days, though, precisely the opposite has proven true. With ministry officials popping off at international summits and business forums every week, their colleagues on the P.R. side increasingly have appeared to be on the defensive. That’s become aggravating for mainland journalists whom they’re supposed to serve. Earlier this week, editorialist Xu Yunpeng of the Hunan-based portal Rednet (Á∫¢ÁΩë) vented about a recent spree of publicity gaffes and damage control:

On Nov. 11, media reports said that the State Development and Reform Commission is currently reviewing its policies on natural gas prices and natural gas use, and plans to raise the price of natural gas and speed up the pace of integration into the world economy. In response, an official from the information office of the State Development and Reform Commission said that the reports were not true (Beijing Times, November 11).

By taking just a cursory glance over recent media reports, if memory serves, this is the fourth instance in which a spokesperson from a government department has stood up and “refuted rumors” (ËæüË∞£) about related news after it has been disclosed…

Here’s a link to the commentary. A full translation follows.

…There were three previous instances. Recently, reports in some media stated that “next year, China will be able to participate locally in American college entrance examination – the ACT.” The news immediately caused a stir in various circles, but the Ministry of Education issued a stern statement the next day saying the report was not true (October 24, Xinhuanet). In recent days, some media and websites stated that “the Ministry of Education’s Development Planning Division was preparing to carry out reforms of independent adult educational institutions and abolishing adult education schools.” In response, the ministry spokesman said that the reports were untrue (October 31 Xinhuanet). A few days ago, the Ministry of Railways spokesman Wang Yongping stated that rumors that “Ministry of Railways is preparing to fast-track adding a railway construction surcharge to train ticket prices, and that train ticket prices would increase,” were not true, and that the Ministry of Railways had never raised this issue (November 5, Xinhuanet).

These hot news items about sensitive issues that concern the national economy and people’s livelihood, when released one day and refuted as rumor the next, leave people feeling duped and at a loss as to what to do. Not only does this sharply discount the credibility of the media; it also tarnishes the credibility of the government.

News amounts to reports of the latest facts that occur. Truth is the lifeblood of the news, and the lifeblood of journalists. Guarding against false reports and not making “empty guesses” are the most basic professional virtues of a journalist. [But] false reports often appear concerning the national economy and people’s livelihood, which provides much food for thought.

Precisely speaking, all of these “false reports” were accurately sourced and well-founded. At the China Education Expo in Beijing, on October 19, reporters learned about the ACT college entrance examination setting up on the mainland. At a 20th anniversary symposium for Beijing Language and Culture University’s, a relevant official from the Ministry of Education divulged that the ministry was preparing to abolish adult education schools. Although the Xinhua reporter did not disclose the source of the news about adding railroad construction surcharge to train ticket prices, the report alleged that the “State Development and Reform Commission is in the midst of conducting market research on the matter.” Was this “research” also created out of thin air? The SDRC has yet to come out and refute it. News of the adjustment of natural gas prices was disclosed by Wang Jing, deputy director of the oil and gas department in the energy bureau of the State Development and Reform Commission, at the Second China International Natural Gas Summit on November 9. This indicates that these reports are by no means groundless rumor.

Your writer has noted that in response to the surcharge of railway construction fees, Ministry of Railways spokesman Wang Yongping stated, “Railway fares concern the vital interests of the masses. Fare adjustments must be made strictly in accordance with legal procedures.” And the person in charge of information office of the State Development and Reform Commission did not mince words on the issue of raising gas prices, stating, “Gas prices are a very sensitive issue. We wouldn’t make an announcement so freely,” and that, “Issues related to prices are not within his (Wang Jing’s) powers of authority.” Thus, I’m afraid the crux of the problem is that people who shouldn’t are making statements they shouldn’t on occasions they shouldn’t.

In the Information Age, society’s ability to make its own decisions is directly proportional to the degree to which information is open. The more open the society, the greater its ability to make its own decisions, the greater its ability to withstand strain, and the more stable it will be. However, publicizing information is a serious choice, and not all information is to be displayed. For example, when sensitive information that closely concerns the interests of the people and falls under the auspices of party and state secrets is still being deliberated, from the perspective of social stability, it should not be publicized at will.

Therefore, governments at all levels should improve mechanisms of publicizing information and the press spokesman system. With regard to sensitive matters closely related to the people’s interests, information should be publicized promptly but not prematurely, and be broadcast nimbly but not too quickly. They should be spoken of by the people who should and at the time when they should, in order to ensure the accuracy of information and the stability of society.

This also illustrates that with sensitive information concerning the immediate interests of the public, as long as there are timely reports (ÈÄÇÊó∂Êä•ÈÅì), there won’t be untrue reports (§±ÂÆûÊä•ÈÅì).

November 13, 2006, 3:10 AM