Why China needs a PR makeover
September 11th, 2012
04:20 PM ET

Why China needs a PR makeover

By Brian Klein, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Brian P. Klein is an economic consultant and former U.S. diplomat who was based in China. The views expressed are his own.

The China Central Television building in Beijing towers over everything around it. As a marvel of design, two sloping pillars meeting at an odd angle in mid-air, the construction seems to defy gravity. And yet, for all its external modernity, China’s main mouthpiece to the world – and the censorship regime that it helps underpin – remains lost in a backwater of a propagandist past.

Across the world, headlines in the free press have circulated about the whereabouts of China’s heir apparent, Xi Jinping. Premier Wen Jiabao counseled against speculation after Xi canceled a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton several days ago (on possibly her last visit to China as diplomat-in-chief). But how could there not be a raft of largely unsubstantiated stories circulating when Xi disappears from public view in the lead up to the most highly anticipated, internationally watched, single-party transfer of power in the world?

With the Bo Xilai scandal hardly behind them, China’s top officials have decided to shut the public out, either at the seaside Beidaihe retreat, or behind the imposing Imperial Walls of Zhongnanhai. The release of a recent picture of Xi addressing the Central Party School was meant to dampen concern, but that was taken on September 1, before the video silence began.

In the wake of an information blackout, rumors have grown from a simple sports injury to heart attack and even treacherous scenarios including a military assassination attempt. Back in March, troop movements and supposed gunshots in downtown Beijing triggered speculation about a military coup. It reportedly turned out to be parade preparations.

Rumors are the meat of China’s political pundits and the bane of official media. The incredible spread of micro blog Weibo, with its several hundred million users, have only magnified what for years were hushed conversations in the halls of elite think tanks and university political science departments.

Over a decade ago, front page China Daily stories focused on farm production numbers and steel output. All of the people’s factories seemed to exceed their quotas. It was a blast from the Soviet past. These days, actual criticism of economic, and sometimes even social, policies make it into the officially controlled press (all publications face censorship). But such limited change has yet to come for one area: the political leadership.

Attempts to cover up Xi’s absence mean that an information starved public may believe anything, and the unintended consequences of mass speculation turning into action would be extremely difficult to control. No amount of deleting the words “back injury” from behind the “Great Firewall” of China is going to quell the rumor mill.

As with any PR campaign, getting ahead of the story is half the battle, and the longer information remains suppressed the more wild the rumors will become. If Xi really did just hurt his back, then why can’t he make a simple private appearance amongst a select few (perhaps seated in a comfortable chair holding the morning edition of today’s China Daily). The longer he doesn’t appear, the wider the cracks in the facade of control become. China has been on the world stage for the greater part of the last decade. With that exposure, and access to the world’s markets, comes a level of scrutiny that can’t easily be ignored.

Uncertainty about the Chinese economy and its slow motion slide into lower growth are widely known about both outside and within China. Now the government’s ability to orchestrate political transitions as if they are merely a stage performance is showing signs of weakening as well. Who knows, maybe Xi was busy with parade preparations. Or perhaps not.

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Topics: China

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Godfree

    For thousands of years the Chinese have acknowledged that governing their country is the most difficult job on earth, and best left to professional managers working by pressure groups and yapping media. That approach made them the #1 nation on earth for 1800 of the past 2000 years and is rapidly returning them to first spot today.
    The only opinions about their government that matter are the opinions of the Chinese people, 85% of whom consistently give the their trust and approval. (Pew, Edelman, Harvard).
    Meanwhile, our depressing circus of government corruption, failure, and lies has brought us to our knees where, it appears, we are destined to stay.

    September 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • ImperiumVita

      Your post is largely asinine. For thousands of years Imperial China has been ruled by nobility and arisocrats currying and trading favors amoung elites, and modern China is no different. "The most difficult job on earth"? Pure fluff on your part. China has had an impressive 30 years (thanks almost entirely to foreign money and technology), but there are significant risks that even a devoted governmetn of "professional managers" cannot ignore; and the decline of the USA is not as certain as you would seem to hope. The history you point to maybe a guide to the future... or it may not be. I can just as easily point to the Imperial Corruption of the Qing Empire to demonstrate that Modern China is doomed. Besides, if China's glorious history is determinative, how did that country ever become the "Sick Man of Asia" in the first place?

      Yapping media is accurate as current media in China is nothing but lapdog for the regime. There is no truth offered and none expected. The 85 percent of Chinees who back the governement have been conditioned in a media environment completely biased toward the Communist Party, so its no surpise they would favor that particular "Big Brother," but how many could tell you what that government did to its own people in June of 1989, and how many endorse Chinese citizens being locked up for years in "Black Prisons"? How many can tell you that the Chairman Mao who is revered in China as a semi-diety, is responsible for the deaths of at least 40 million Chinese through Communist Party corruption and incompetence? If the Chinese government elite honestly felt they have the "Mandate of Heaven" to rule China, why are they afraid of the Chinese people knowing these basic facts about the government?

      September 12, 2012 at 1:08 am | Reply
      • Kailim

        Foreign investment and technology alone cannot make China successful. Hard working people, low land and labor costs,stable society and helpful policies had attracted foreign investments coming with technology. Foreign investors, particularly those from America, are not idiots.

        Media environment is not that bad as you perceived. At least I am able to read adverse comments against China including yours everyday in China.

        September 12, 2012 at 2:55 am |
      • Maersk

        ImperiumVita, you definitely sound like a typical American kwok zucking kwok zuckers who have zucked their uncle's dirty and limply kwok one time too many and swallowed one mouthful too much. Do you realize you have kum oozing out from your kwok zucking mouth from being full already?

        September 13, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Bill

      85% trust and approval means nothing when you have no other option and a state run media. I am sure the North Koreans would give a number higher, though millions have starved to death over the years. How much does China pay you?

      September 13, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Reply
      • Maersk

        Who the phuck told you that they have no option? They don't have to have their kwok zucked by an American kwok zucking kwok zuckers such as you if they don't want to. By the way, how much did you uncle pay you to zuck his limply kwok? Don't tell me that your useless uncle gave you an IOU instead,

        September 14, 2012 at 3:09 am |
      • Godfree Roberts

        22% means a lot more when we have a "free" media, because that's the trust level of our media.
        And remember: 100 million Chinese travel abroad every year, 500 million of them use the Internet (the Firewall is extremely porous), and the Chinese are - as Kissinger observed –"smarter than us".

        July 2, 2013 at 2:14 am |
    • Rares

      Actually in the first three centuries of our era, The Roman Empire was the greatest economic power on earth, altough only slightly ahead of China. Truth is it's hard to rule over the greatest and most enduring nation on Earth ( the only ancient civilisation which has survived to the present day) .

      September 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  2. nishant

    why blame the Chinese all the time, at least they are clear on that
    on the contrary see their Indian neighbors
    how they hide and suppress truth in the cloak of free press
    take for eg their recent attempt by next in line of the ruling REGIME to get a gag on press
    their inherent fear of social media- does a democracy fear that ? if it is a democracy i.e.
    Communist are always criticized for gags time for the world to just shift focus a few clicks west.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:22 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    In the past when a party figure disappeared from view it sometimes sent a signal that they were in trouble. China's leaders often keep a low profile. State media rarely announce what they are up to and they may be out of sight for days.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:52 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: a signal that HE WAS in trouble.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:54 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        That Xi Jinping had cancelled meetings with visiting foreign leaders had fuelled a rumour frenzy, not least after the disappearance of a number of high-profile politicians earlier this year.

        September 12, 2012 at 4:55 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Indeed it's time for Beijing to improve the relation between the government and its people, who are higly active on the internet and want to know what's going on in their country. Hence, it's getting increasingly untenable to uphold this hermetic secrecy.

        September 12, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Maersk

      Should they annouce to the world that right at this moment Xi is having his kwok zucked by the American kwok zucking kwok zucker?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:46 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      "In the past when a party figure disappeared from view it sometimes sent a signal that they were in trouble"
      Xi is definitely in trouble because his hard kwok is stuck in your tight azz. Why didn't you grease it before letting him mount you, kwok head?

      September 13, 2012 at 4:24 am | Reply
  4. American Medis Bias

    This is very amusing. America saying the China needs a PR make over when they could really use one themselves....two wars in the Middle East, cold war mentalities against countries in Asia, China and Russia and the political parties of extremes. Yes, there's only the left and right, but never the middle... American politics really go to the extremes.

    September 12, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      You should have known by now that whenever they open their kwok zucking mouth and say something about China, there is nothing good come out from their kwok zucking mouth.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:50 am | Reply
  5. Uber News Network (UNN) ©

    Let us now look at India thorugh the prism of China. The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power.

    We continue to read with interest the thesis presented on CNN that "less is more" in a political context as applied to India. Although Mies Van Der Rohe adopted this in an architectural context, its economic and political connotations are indeed powerful. Empowering subjugated minorities in India by splitting it into smaller states would trigger uber economic demand for western nations who have given so much financial and technology aid to India with no return to show for the investment. We concur with this approach and find the premise to be on solid footing. Central Asian States (CAS) are a case in point on this successful approach. We need to understand that India has an unmanageable large population mired in poverty and we are spinning our wheels trying to feed it. It is also too big of a geographical unit to govern. Again, we saw how a few teenage talibans were able to invade it with a few BB guns. And that says a lot... in a negative way not only for a large unmanageable country like India but also for USA which is trying to prop it up against China. Besides, Americans cannot afford to look like losers in the midst of a terror war which has lasted for over ten years now.

    September 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  6. Sammy J.

    China is the best hope we have for a new world leadership to emerge that is more effective than current. Otherwise we might as well resign ourselves to gloom and doom.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  7. The truth

    No they don't. They don't care about PR and all that other stuff.

    As long as liberals are stupid enough to continue buying the new "Ipad X" or "Iphone X" China will continue being rich.

    September 14, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      What about the Chinese made dudo that you've stuffed in your azz? Without the Chinese made dudo, you would still be using your fingers.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
      • the truth

        I'm sorry I don't speak your gibberish

        September 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  8. omar

    The Future of China is brighter than USA – This is the real issue for the most of the Americans

    September 14, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
    • Jackie

      you are quite wrong about thinking of future of China. All of chinese industry is at the lowest level,as a real chinese netizen ,i have to tell you the reality that chinese gervoment always persecuted those who didnt conform to their ideas,and never reveal the real news from their own media.i am not complaining.Though China had made a great progress in the facts of economics,military,tec..extraordinaryly poor people exist all over its cities,just nation is the richest.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:30 am | Reply
  9. omar

    Pak Chin are Great

    September 14, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  10. Maersk

    Instead of writing bullzhit "Why China needs a PR makeover", this former American kwok zucking diplomat who relied on zucking Chinese kwoks for a living should start writing why America needs a PR makeover. Maybe he can zuck some moslem kwoks just to calm down the protests.

    September 14, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  11. jeff forsythe

    Western people have been so led astray by their Governments and their media about the brutal Chinese Communist Party because of one thing, corporate greed.
    The CCP , simply put, is a paranoid, vicious gangster regime that has no respect for human rights or human life in general. It insists that its people have no belief in either God or goodness. Since it took power in 1949, it has murdered 80 million of its own people, has tortured and brainwashed countless millions of other innocent people and just because a few million have become rich from the misery of a billion, does not in any way make them some kind of World power. The people who control the media and the politics in the West are fully aware of these atrocities but continue to do business as usual. Shameful. This continuance of doing business with the devil has obviously backfired and the cruel CCP is laughing all the way to the bank.
    Just my understanding, thank you for your consideration.

    September 15, 2012 at 2:26 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      jeff forsyethe the lama lover, the CCP must have viciously gangg-bangged you. They must also have harvested your limply kwok and fed it to pigs. As a result of loosing your kwok, you became a trannyy. I just don't know where you got the number that the CCP murdered 80 millions of its people. Were you kwok zucking in China at the time when it happened? Were you counting the number of dead people or were you actually counting the number of Chinese kwoks you had zucked? I am just curious.

      September 15, 2012 at 8:25 am | Reply

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