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Why is PR So Bad in China?

July 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Amongst the myriad thousand questions that the Wenzhou train accident last weekend has raised, one that lingers around the most is “why is PR so bad in China?”.  I had previously written about the epic gaffes that CCTV had played on the public, ranging from using footage from Top Gun in a report about a new fighter jet, to Hu Jin Tao visiting the home of a Chinese woman who claims to pay only 77rmb per month in rent.

From start to finish, the efforts of the spokespersons of the various government agencies that are involved in the train crash have been particularly underwhelming:

Wang Yong Ping’s (the spokesman for the Ministry of Railways whos was spotted recently taking the plane instead of the train)statement explaining (or not, as the case may be) why train carriages were buried at the scene of the accident almost instantly became an internet meme when he said

“…During the emergency rescue operations, the area was very complex, and there was a marsh below, so it was very difficult to do our best job. We also had to deal with all the other train cars, so (the earth-moving equipment operator) buried the front car below, covering it with earth, and it was mainly just a case of dealing with the emergency. This was the explanation he offered. Whether you believe it or not, I certainly do.”

Which wasn’t particularly reassuring, especially since, they’ve dug them back up again.

When Premier Wen eventually turned up to do the consolation thing that he’s so good at, he told reporters “I am ill, having spent 11 days in bed, but I managed to come today only after my doctor reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital. This is why I didn’t come here sooner,”.  Not so ill, it would seem, to have met several different leaders of state in the last 11 days, however.  Not only did he lie, accordingly to The Shanghaiist, he lied to the same state controlled media that had in fact been openly reporting on the fact that he wasn’t ill and had attended several meetings:

On July 18, Wen received Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
On July 19, Wen presided over a State Council meeting on climate change and sustainable development.
On July 20, Wen presided over a State Council working session.
On July 21, Wen met up with Cameroonian President Paul Biya.
On July 24, Wen received a delegation from the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade.
On July 27, Wen presided over another State Council working session.

The government appeared to want to use the crash as another attempt to stir up all the emotions that a growing dictatorship needs from it’s populous – instructing the media to specifically focus on stories that were “more touching” whilst telling them not to even think about investigating the causes of the crash themselves, along with terse, clear instructions not to reflect or comment.  The rules were happily ignorned when the journalists found out that no-one was really answering any questions at the press conferences.

The Chinese press has drawn parallels with another train crash that happened last year in Guangdong:

“Train K859 derailed on May 23 last year (the death toll given was 19), and a rescue worker tells our reporters: ‘The accident happened at 2am, and trains were running by 6pm [the same day], so last time the rescue work was even shorter. They used diggers to make a pit, then dragged the train cars into the pit. After that they used tractor shovels to crush them down. Some body parts that hadn’t been taken out were mixed in and buried together [with the wreckage]. A couple of weeks later, after the incident had settled down, everything was dug out again, everything cleaned away and carted off.”

When the company that supplied the railway signals held a “press conference” that was either grossly misreported on or so fantastically awful and mismanaged that it beggars belief and went through all the colours of the rainbow, starting as a calamity, through to a major crisis, and finally deciding on taking flight as a fully-fledged catastrophe (again from The Shanghaiist):

Q: What railway signals equipment has your company been supplying for the D trains?
A: You can check it out from our website yourself.

Q: What is your company’s relationship with the Ministry of Railways?
A: It’s not convenient to talk about that.

Q: What is the government board that is directly in charge of your company?
A: If you’ve made it to this press conference, you should know the answer.

Q: So why are you conducting today’s press conference?
A: Uh. I don’t know. The weather’s been really hot, and you guys have been having a hard time running around outside. (The phone rings.) Uh. Can I take this call?

Media: Can you please show us some respect around here? This is a press conference!
A: Uh. Please let me take this call really quickly.

Finally, when the names of the people who would be providing the “swift, open and transparent” investigation of the Ministry of Railways ordered by Wen Jia Bao, it appeared that almost all of them officials on the investigating committee are currently employed by the, er, Ministry of Railways.  According to the China Media Project’s Newswire, noted scholar He Weifang wrote that “Officials from the railway ministry stand out [on the list]. They should decline [participation]. No one can be a judge of events that directly concern their own interests — this is the most basic demand of procedural justice.”  I don’t think that anyone is holding their breath over that one.

For the most part, the Chinese government seem to have understood that they have lost this propaganda battle for now.  They may have taken the view that it’s probably best for the outrage to burn itself out in the press and in the Chinese cyberscape.  When the CCP decides that enough is enough, they’ll start clamping down on coverage sending the message that it’s no longer acceptable to discuss the failings of the Party.

The Triumph of the Geeks

November 18, 2009 1 comment

Apart from pandas giving birth (or at the very least, two pandas looking at each with a twinkle in their eye), there’s not much else from China that will grab the front pages like a presidential visit.  The trouble is that while there are was a lot of style, there wasn’t much in the way of substance.   Unless you count 6 hours on The Great Wall and taking photos of the The Forbidden City, that is.

But all that was to be expected.  As Gady Epstein pointed out on his Twitter feed, Obama wasn’t about to step on Chinese toes on their home turf. Beyond the “town hall meeting” in Shanghai (essentially a televised English Corner), there was nothing much else for the President to do.  A press conference turned into a press meeting, with no questions allowed, and public appearances were kept to an absolute minimum.  Previous presidents had pushed for changes in the law with regards to human rights (Clinton) and had even accused the country’s leadership of currency manipulation (guess who).  Barack Obama, at least officially, seemed to be in Beijing for what everyone else is officially here to do – enjoy the culture and the history.  In fact, given the lack of any decent TV coverage, the cancellation of press conferences, and all the rest of it, you wouldn’t be overly shocked to be told that not many Chinese knew that he was in town at all, let along talked to students in a university somewhere.

What was interesting was that the meeting was broadcast on the Internet by the White House tech staff themselves and – get this – the feed is unblocked on the mainland and it was accompanied by a live word-for-word translation of the whole thing.  In Chinese.  Anyone with an internet connection (which is a lot of anyones in China) could log onto the White House and see a Chinese students discussing Internet censorship by the Chinese Communist Party, and then see what the world’s most powerful man had to say about it.  It’s one way of staying ahead of the game – the blocking of the White House website could be seen as a diplomatic slight, so whatever was on it, within reason, would be pretty much available to all and sundry in China.  Whoever thought of the idea of adding a Chinese translation is either a devious prankster, or a certified genius.  It’s odd the way that those two often crossover.

It’s about this point in the article that you’ll understand from my gushing that I’m a geek.  A nerd.  I’ve got a blog and more than one email address, you don’t really need much more than that, do you? While most people were gearing up to make themselves ready for Windows 2000, I was wrestling with my first command line on SuSE Linux 6.2.  I worked my way through several Linux distros, including SuSE, Mandrake (now Mandriva), Red Hat and finally Ubuntu – Windows finally matured into something that I could use satisfactorily and I’m currently running Vista Ultimate.  I had a website, a couple, in fact, both had a couple of visitors a month if I was lucky, and I was a lurking member of Slashdot long before it was made the owners of that blog into millionaires.  It’s not unsurprising to learn that most of my angst was directed at the Great Firewall.  Now, it seems, I’m not alone in casting aspersions on this monstrosity, as Barack Obama was quizzed on whether people should be allowed to access social networking sites like Twitter this week in Shanghai – the questions about Internet censorship were asked by handpicked members of the Chinese Communist Youth League.

Censorship and the Great Firewall are my personal bugbears when it comes to talking politics in China.  The specific beef that I have with the Internet censorship in China is that it doesn’t work.  At least half my friends who live in the Chinese mainland are able to post messages of Facebook, and I’m still able to see Tweets from the various journos and commentators that I follow on Twitter.  The Great Firewall of China doesn’t work, and it’s costing the Chinese people around $300 million a year to keep going.   That’s $300 million that could be spent on giving people a new hospital or rebuilding a decent school in Sichuan.  Another wild idea would be that that money could be used to actually make people happy rather than make them repressed – it would surely cut down on the monthly tally of protests that turn violent in China.  The Uyghurs would be a little bit happier if they got a bit extra money here and there, and the Tibetans might even welcome the odd donation to keep a remote temple open.  But that kind of thing just doesn’t wash with the Chinese Communists.

The odd thing is that while I’m doing my best to be a do-gooding, interfering busybody who, the Chinese are just getting on with it, and even though they aren’t living in the US, they are finding ways and means of getting the work done.  How about we look at education?  Surely a communist developing country can’t have a better education system than say, Japan or the UK, or the US?

The fact of the matter is that more Chinese students than ever are enrolling and foreign universities – the pool of intellect in China in the next five years will be astonishing.  The old system of having your degree chosen for you is long gone, students are free to choose what they want to study.  Because they are interested in the subject, they study harder and get better degrees, and the whole thing sets a virtuous circle into motion.  Overseas Chinese students numbered an impressive 98, 510 last year, which is a whopping 21% increase on previous years (India still leads, but not by much, with 103,260 overseas students).  60% of all US universities surveyed in the autumn reported an increase in the number of Chinese students they enrolled.

Essentially what is happening is this: because of the one-child policy, children in China are now taking advantage of the best educations in the world while they’re waiting for their own home-grown institutions to mature.  They’re not just saying “we’re going to have great universities”, they’re saying “we’re going to have great universities, and while we’re waiting for them, we are sending our kids to great universities.”  The Chinese are essentially outsourcing their students to the US.  The fashion for an American education is such that a book has just been published by three Chinese undergrads studying in the US.  Called “A True Liberal Arts Education”, it describes life at a small liberal arts college, and the concepts of liberal arts.

People are absolutely right when they say that censored version of Google or Yahoo is better than no Google or Yahoo at all – having the tools that organize and make sense of the Internet are vital.  What comes with the ability to sort through information effectively is that ability to compare your circumstances with those others have in other countries.  Even if the students were handpicked and even if the whole thing was stage-managed, as one Chinese Twitter user commented, for a brief moment in China, people were able to discuss the problems of censorship and one-party rule, and these are subjects that could only really be discussed with a foreign leader.

When it comes to letting the Chinese in on the secret that if they had a more open Internet, they’d be able to make more money is something that they’re going to have to figure out for themselves.  The last time that the Chinese were running full tilt boogie, they came up with the compass, the printing press and gunpowder, who knows what they’ll do when they finally get the genie out of the bottle.

Hot, Flat and Repressed

September 10, 2009 Leave a comment

China, in its present state of government will never be the global power that it wants to be.  The reign of the ruling Chinese Communist Party will only last so long as they have the energy for the Chinese people.

The unprecedented growth and industrialization of China is, by any measure, remarkable, and fuelling this growth is, well, fuel.  Specifically, oil.  China has little in the way of its own oil reserves – optimistic estimates say that there’s about 14 years of oil left given the trend of growth and consumption.  The government needs to import oil.  A lot of it.  The problem was that most developed countries that were willing to sell oil to the Chinese would always add the condition that one of the situations, be they the human rights situation, organ harvesting, censorship or any other of the distasteful activities that the CCP indulges in should stop.  The rather inventive solution to the problem was to invest in countries that didn’t have the money or the resources to drill for their own oil, and these are usually the countries that don’t have the best human rights situations themselves, so they’re in no place to pile criticism on the Chinese government.  The upshot is that the Chinese are ruffling more feathers in the human rights community, signing million dollar deals with countries that White House hawks would consider rogue states.

The big question that is asked by most young Chinese is: “When America and Europe were industrializing, they didn’t have anyone telling them they should use less coal or burn less oil, or pipe less gas.  They polluted with wild abandon and everyone in the west is rich and fat because of it.  Why can’t we do the same?”  The answer is: China can. Not only “China can”, but “China can and I want it to do so”.  Why?  Because the interest in renewable energy sources is gathering more and more momentum every day.  More tax dollars and more private companies are pouring money into solving the world’s energy crisis.  They’re not doing this in order to save the world, they’re spending money because they know that renewable energy will become, in the very near future, the next global market.  Holland exports its wind turbine technology, and Holland has 2% unemployment.  It’s no coincidence that they were one of the first countries to reduce their dependence on Middle Eastern oil to zero, while also becoming one of the first countries to seriously invest in renewable energy technology.  The more time that China wastes arguing with Japan about where it can drill for oil, the more time Europe, America and Japan (Japan, being the most energy efficient developed country, which will be able to exploit a market of 1.6billion people in China) have to be the first to make a product that everyone will be relying on.  Of course, I want this product to be designed and patented by a British firm, rather than a Chinese firm.

And if you think that this is all just prevarication, the bad news that this has already happened.  Pennsylvania train maker GE Transportation is selling energy efficient, eco-friendly train locomotives to Chinese rail and freight companies.  The American trains last longer, don’t use as much fuel (they have 10-cylinder engines instead of the Chinese 12-cylinder) and don’t break down as much as the older, more inefficient engines that China has been using for years.  Already an American company has a foothold in the Chinese economy.  All of this has been done while the Chinese are partying hard, singing Hu Jintao’s praises and raising a glass to Wen Jiabao.  While the officials are taking bribes and looking after their own, the Americans are starting to take over major Chinese industries, thanks to their clear regulation and inventive innovation.  Some money is going to the Chinese, it’s true, but the big money is going to the US.

How does innovation follow on from regulation?   When the auto industry in American was told that they must install all their cars with catalytic converters, only one company looked at how it could get around these rules that were, on average, adding $1300 to the production cost of every car.  The chairman of Honda told its engineers that they must look at how to reduce emissions before they got anywhere near the tailpipe.  The result was a new engine with a pre-burn chamber that reduced the toxicity of the gas/air mix before it went into the piston chamber to be ignited.  Honda not only created a solution that saved their company millions of dollars and helped to combat climate change, they also started licensing the technology to other automakers.

When the movie Kung-fu Panda was released worldwide, there were two camps in China that were critical.  The first crackpot camp claimed that the move exploited the memories of those who had died in the Sichuan earthquake.  The second group asked the rather more valid question of why hadn’t the Chinese movie makers themselves been able to produce a smash hit animated comedy set in ancient China?   Americans were selling Chinese to the Chinese.  With the government still in control of the TV and of movie production, this is the way that it’s always going to be.  China will always be the one picking up the crumbs, living off the pale imitations and pirate copies of things that other people produce.   Americans make movies that sell, the Chinese have to make movies that conform to a haphazardly enforced political and moral agenda.

There’s regulation in America, but there’s little in the way of censorship.  And look what has happened there – there are hundreds of companies now that actually sell people software that will censor the Internet for them.  Worried parents don’t want their kids to be able to access redhotanddutch.com, so they pay companies to give them software that will block pornographic websites or websites that can teach teenagers how to make pipebombs.  If the Great Firewall was removed, then it would free up a monopoly that Chinese companies would be able to take advantage of.  If there was an open list available and updated reguluarly by the government, then companies would be able to take that list and create filtering software around it.  Laws could be passed that made sure that whichever institutions the government wanted these filters to be installed at had the software properly set up.  It’s still censorship, but it’s honest censorship, the criteria would be in the open, and everyone would know where they stood.

What’s happened is that people are scared to develop and innovate, because there are no clear guidelines telling people what they can and can’t do.  Copies of existing works are being made because they’ve been around for a while and haven’t caused trouble in other countries.  What the Chinese Internet needs isn’t censorship and prison terms, it’s stable, reliable, open regulation.  With the regulation will come innovation, Chinese software engineers will be able to clearly see what they can’t and can do, and soon they’ll start creating rather than copying.  Copying is only a short-term stop-gap solution, sooner or later, foreign companies will get tired of having their products pirated, and they’ll start coming down hard on the Chinese manufacturers by imposing hefty taxes on Chinese imports.

So, let’s assume that there’s a rising middle class in China, and that incomes, on average, are going up too.  The money that’s generated from taxes collected from the wealthy middle class give the government a huge pool of money with which to effect massive social improvement.  There’s more money to get the best doctors in better hospitals which now have the best equipment.  The parks are clean, as is the water that’s piped into the apartments.  On sunny days, lovers may stroll in the many clean, quiet parks dotted around the city.  The public transport system is being overhauled with new subway lines and cleaner buses being introduced.  In short, there’s enough money going spare to pour into big, flashy projects that do two important things: they keep people happy, and they keep people from asking questions.  If you’re happy and you know it, then you’re less likely to demand accountability and transparency from your government. The CCP is still able to bank on the growing economy to keep people happy because the famines and the hardships that were endured during the Chinese civil war are remembered by people who are still alive, so it’s easy now to sing the praises of the CCP and the apparent economic wonder that they’ve orchestrated.   The trick of politics isn’t to make people happy, it’s to keep people happy.  In order to keep the Chinese people happy, and to keep the lucrative manufacturing contracts China now finds itself reliant on an unsteady foreign oil supply, and oil is a resource that is definitely close to extinction.

The fact that the CCP can so effectively crush opposition shows that the government has enough money to not only to keep the people happy on a superficial level, but they’re also able to spend large amounts of cash developing sophisticated internal intelligence services, and preventing groups that have an agenda different to that of the ruling political party from forming.  The rise of China’s middle class and the migration of ethnically Han Chinese to remote areas of the country has made it easier than ever for people to compare their economic status with that of others.  Needless to say, these people at the losing end of the equation are not happy.  Thousands found solace in the sword verses of the Koran, not because they found Allah, but because they were sick and tired of being the losers all the time.  The Muslim men that were unemployed and destitute in their home countries are the ones that migrated to the terror training camps, and they turned that dissatisfaction into a hatred so directed and so pure that they were willing to commit acts of mass murder.  There’s no billionaire oil sheik on the planet who feels he needs to sacrifice his life and kill countless others in order to enter paradise.  Wherever there are have and have-nots, there’s always terrorism.

The creation of a Chinese middle class has given the Chinese government access to a money pot deeper than it could possibly fantasize of, and so long as people are getting richer and are paying their bills, the more money the government has to strengthen its grip on dissidents.  The problem that comes is when the energy that is needed to finance the business ventures that enables the rich to get richer runs out, there’s going to be a problem.  More than likely, the CCP will be forced to do as Bahrain had to do – reform its basic, fundamental ideas of how society is supposed to be run.  People are not likely to give it all up and go through another North Korea-style great struggle; they aren’t going to trek for miles on the second Long March and dig for coal with their bare hands.  They’re much more likely to riot in the streets, and demand that the government fulfill their half of the bargain.

The balancing act that Beijing is faced with in unenviable.  While their yearly 8%/9% growth is spectacular, and the effect that this has on the nation’s millions that live on $1 a day has been a phenomenal achievement for a country that started its days 60 years ago bankrupt with no gold supplies, there is no question that this growth has to be sustained.  Or else.   What has been created now is a strange economic cycle where the economy grows, and must keep growing to satisfy the general population (and to help secure to continued governance from the CCP), in order to keep the economy growing, the country needs oil.  The country doesn’t have oil so it has to import from rogue states and at some point, that’s definitely going to come up at the next WTO meeting.  If you think this is a big problem, I haven’t even mentioned that America is going after the same oil supplies in order to sustain its own addiction to the black stuff.

After all the fear-mongering and doomsaying, for the first time in a long time, I have hope for China.  To put it more accurately, I have a little more hope than I did.  The hope comes in the form of the members of the very same middle class that are, according to one economic theory, helping the CCP stay in power, the ones who own the massive Chinese companies, and the ones who protested so vehemently about the absurd idea to install the Green Dam/Youth Escort software on all the computers that were to be sold in China this year.  It’s the biggest victory that the Chinese people have scored over their government in a long time.  One thing that is apparent after spending so much time in China is that people are able to tell you how great the country is, but the list of achievements is always in the past tense. China and it’s people must look to the longer term, they’ve got to turn their “did”s into “will”s, and the one thing that they can’t afford to do is to wait till later to clean up the mess, once they’ve become rich; they’ve got to clean up to become rich.