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China seeks to make over its suddenly shaky image

September 14, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Tainted pet food. Unsafe toys. Brown skies and orange lakes. Slave labor scandals. Collapsed bridges and coal mining disasters.

China has been hit with enough bad news in a short period to tax the crisis management skills of Lindsay Lohan's publicist, let alone a government whose first instinct is to "deny, deny, deny."

The Communist Party prefers its public relations in the form of carefully scripted reports handed down through controlled channels that praise the leadership and play up the positive. This is especially true in the lead-up to the Communist Party Congress, the biggest event on China's political calendar, which begins Oct. 15.

Unfortunately for Chinese censors, a more three-dimensional view of the news is increasingly just a click away. A few terms entered into one of China's Internet search engines quickly reveal reports on food inspection shortfalls, official complicity in mining accidents, questionable nuclear standards, even comments on the party's penchant for nearly identical happy-talk front pages.

"Readers use these newspapers for toilet paper, anyway," online writer "Acepatrick" said on the Bullog.cn site after the People's Daily, the Guangming Daily and the Economic Daily published matching front pages Aug. 19. "They save work editing and printing, which helps the environment. How harmonious."

The onslaught of problems has overwhelmed Beijing's damage-control efforts, experts say. "The sheer tempo of scandals and scrutiny has picked up to the point that China's traditional media system is not up to the task," said David Wolf, president of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based strategic public relations firm. "Before, they had an issue once every six months. They're also grappling with communication problems within the government, a huge organization, which is not used to being transparent or responsive."

In recent weeks, however, some Chinese officials are starting to do a better job reassuring the public at home and abroad by following a few cardinal rules: Admit mistakes, accept responsibility, minimize cover-ups and outline a concrete response.

The State Council, China's Cabinet, has distributed handouts, made safety officials available, organized media trips to factories and inspection centers and nudged other agencies to follow suit.

"It has been repeatedly proved 'information blockage' is like walking into a dead end," Wang Guoqing, vice minister of the State Council Information Office, said in July. "We should enlist the media in any emergency plans."

The government has also tapped international image advisors, including public relations experts Edelman and Ogilvy, as well as Washington lobbying firm Patton Boggs.

"We're trying to help them understand how to be more responsible," said Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy China. "Historically, China hasn't sought out advice, but that's changed quite dramatically in the 12 years I've been here."

The real test, experts say, will be whether China enacts basic, far-reaching reforms to shore up the "Made in China" label.

"Their crisis communication skills leave much to be desired," said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Sierra Madre-based Bernstein Crisis Management Inc., an advisor to several U.S. companies on quality-control issues in China. "But even if they're the best in the world, you can't spin this. Ultimately, the recall problems begin in China."

Chinese officials are products of a system in which the first line of defense is to deny that problems exist and attack the messenger. "Their instinct is to deny, deny until they're forced to admit," said Li Datong, former editor of Freezing Point, an influential weekly newspaper supplement, who was pushed out in early 2006 after a run-in with propaganda officials.

In 2003 after the SARS epidemic, Beijing enacted a formal crisis-management system with new laws, committees and a series of national, departmental and special-situation contingency plans.

In practice, however, coordination remains a problem, experts say. Although China has a history of reacting well to natural disasters, it is less adept at coping with more complex modern emergencies, including product-quality issues, said Peng Zongchao, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University and visiting fellow at Harvard.

"As a Chinese saying goes, eight departments can't even cooperate on raising a pig," said Gu Linsheng, researcher with Tsinghua's Emergency Management Research Center in Beijing. "There are too many agencies that don't coordinate."

Corruption, protectionism and an incentive system that judges local and many central government officials on how few problems occur in their area, rather than on how well they address root causes, have also undercut a rapid, effective response.

Although China hardly has a monopoly on government infighting, miscommunication is compounded by the dominance the Communist Party structure maintains over the government bureaucracy and the slow pace of political reform.

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