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The Government’s Press Spokesperson System

In June, 2009, the official media Liao Wang, a weekly news magazine, and the International Herald Tribune each published an article on the government’s system of using a press spokesperson. To the Chinese government, the press spokesperson system is something new. Articles have repeatedly referred to the U.S. government’s press spokesperson system. Discussion of the spokesperson system, especially the Zhongnanhai press spokesperson system, led to speculation that Beijing has adopted a new media and public relations strategy to deal with the growing influence of public opinion on the Internet. Specifically, it has changed from blocking information completely to actively speaking out in an effort to hold the upper hand in controlling the news media, guiding public opinion, and neutralizing negative voices. Below are excerpts from the two articles.

 “The Press Spokesperson System Moves Forward,” by Liao Wang, June 8, 2009 [1]

"By strengthening and improving the spokesperson system, correct, effective and timely implementation of the agenda-setting through the media has become a breakthrough point for strengthening the government’s ability to govern," according to Li Xiguang, a Professor, and head of the Government Spokesperson Research Group at Tsinghua University. In his view, under the traditional propaganda system, when it comes to reporting unexpected incidents, important meetings or other important news events, the government controls what the media does or does not report by giving orders. When the government establishes a press spokesperson, it is to influence the media by providing the media with a lot of planned information. The press spokesperson system provides information to the media using proactive ways to subtly influence and guide the media and public opinion at home and abroad. The effect is more effective and clever than simple control.

An expert who was interviewed expressed the belief that China must keep up the results achieved by the press spokesperson system, and continue to explore the model suited to China’s conditions. Except for the information that should not be publicized according to the law, as much as possible of all other information should be made public.

In the Internet age, e-mail, MSN, QQ (forum), personal blogs and other means of communication have come out one after another. It is very difficult to suppress the dissemination of information. Since it is difficult to change people’s first impression, the government should be the first to publicize its authoritative voice.

In addition, in this increasingly diverse era in China, various domestic and foreign interest groups all hope to use and even take advantage of the media. For example, when certain types of emergency incidents occur, even though some problems could originally have been quickly resolved, under some people’s instigation, they become the "media events" or group events that arouse public indignation.

The interviewed expert believed that appointing a Zhongnanhai spokesperson and authorizing him as the sole authoritative spokesperson for the central government could more comprehensively and accurately transmit the policy and the stance of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council. Zhongnanhai must become the first definer of important news, especially for the major emergency events, and should be the first to issue the government’s voice.

Li Xiguang said that the Zhongnanhai spokesperson must, first of all, be the mouthpiece and spokesperson of the Party Central Committee and the State Council. He must clearly express the position and view of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council. At the same time, he must possess the ability of sharp observation and concise expression like the journalists, and he must be the starting point of the transmission chain for all the important information and news from the CPC Central Committee and the State Council.

Yin Yungong also indicated that, at present, China has established the press spokesperson system with three levels, but it still lacks the spokesperson at the highest level. Although there is the State Council Information Office, its main service targets are the central ministries and provinces. (China) should learn from the successful practices in other countries, particularly the White House spokesperson in the United States and consider the establishment of a Zhongnanhai spokesperson at a proper time. It will once again push forward the reform of China’s press spokesperson system.

Li Xiguang: Why Do We Need a Zhongnanhai Spokesperson? The International Herald Tribune, June 11, 2009 [2]

From the central government’s perspective, the establishment of a press spokesperson in Zhongnanhai can avoid having the media pursue the other departments and staff for an interview. For the government, too many (news) sources generated internally are troublesome and have "inconsistencies," which will inevitably lead to questions from the media. Appointing a Zhongnanhai spokesperson and authorizing him as the sole authorized spokesperson for the central government can transmit the policy and the stance of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council more comprehensively and accurately, thus avoiding unnecessary controversy.

Zhongnanhai should be the First Definer of the News

The International Herald Tribune: You have raised the point of view of "ruling the news." What is the relationship with the proposal of establishing a Zhongnanhai spokesperson?

Li Xiguang: The main contents of "ruling the news" are: establishing various levels of a government spokesperson system, in particular, and setting up the spokesperson system for the President and the Premier, so as to improve the Party and the government’s agenda-setting ability. The highest decision-making meeting in the U.S. government is the meeting held by the President of the United States at the White House every day. This meeting is not focused on anything else but what today’s news should be. It is through the White House’s highest level press-planning meeting that a single voice and a universal keyword are formed. Thus it ensures that the agendas of the American people, the U.S. media, even the world’s people, other countries’ media and other countries’ government’s concerns all have the same agenda that was planned by the White House. The agenda setting and the right of selecting news are tightly controlled in hand.

The government often can become the first definer of the news, especially in emergency incidents, but the prerequisite is that the government must take the initiative and issue the government’s voice first. The messages from the government all have a natural authority and are what the people most want to know. As long as the initiative is taken, the government is able to take the opportunity to guide public opinion. If it loses the opportunity, the government will have to pay a high price to re-lead or re-shape public opinion. Therefore, Zhongnanhai has to be the first news definer.

[1] Liao Wang, June 8, 2009
[2] International Herald Tribune, June 11, 2009