BEIJING — Eleven leaders of China’s Communist Party took part recently in an event of seismic significance.
They appeared in public to be identified as spokespeople for the Party.
Nine men and two women lined up in front of news photographers for a group photo to make their debut as the public faces of some of the Party’s most important, and up to now, secretive departments. Their jobs will be to make information about the work of those publicly funded departments available to the public.
People in Western countries might be puzzled why the appointment of 11 flacks made front-page news.
In China, however, government is just beginning to open up to public scrutiny.
China’s first government spokesman didn’t appear until March 1983 at the Foreign Affairs ministry. He held weekly press conferences. No questions were allowed. In the United States, reporters were pummeling the country’s intelligence service with questions about its recruitment of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, “the butcher of Lyon.”
In September that year, the Chinese department granted each reporter permission to ask one question a month. By 1995, it was holding two press conferences a week with no limits on reporters’ questions.
A mere 17 years after the first government flack appeared, the Taiwan Affairs Office in 2000 became the second ministry to appoint a spokesman and hold press conferences.
Since then, departments at all levels of government have dutifully followed suit. Bureaucrats were informed they would be spokespeople. The apparatus was in place.
And there it quietly rusted, largely unused.
In China especially, officials abhor the idea of saying the wrong thing in public, failing to give bosses enough credit for success, or implying that there might be any flaw in adopted policies or neglecting to point out the critical role of the Party in achieving the glorious benefits of social harmony and scientific development.
Blunders here have consequences more unpleasant than simply having to tell reporters the next day that you misspoke yourself.
Aside from the professional repercussions, a public loss of face is an unbearable personal disgrace in Chinese culture.
Flacks in China must overcome other obstacles, as well. A Chinese saying warns that the bird who sticks his head up is the first to get smacked. People here avoid calling attention to themselves in public. And if they’re put under a spotlight, the last thing they want to do is anything different from what every other Chinese would do.
Mostly, that would be to say as little as possible.
Now, these 11 people find themselves thrust into roles that will require them to answer unexpected questions, think on their feet about the answers and respond immediately — in public.
Their appointments, and the big attention given to them by media, highlight the Party’s seriousness about curbing corruption in government. Scrutiny and exposure of greedy, dishonest officials via the Internet has demonstrated the power of public opinion.
Pictures have been posted of officials driving home in government-owned luxury cars or wearing a watch that costs far more than many people’s annual incomes. Each resulted in furor that generated thousands of scathing comments online and has led to disciplinary actions against some officials.
So “transparency” has become the new buzzword in government, and the Party has decided to bring the media into the act.
Reporters have been like wallflowers at the dance, if they were lucky enough to even get in. If someone in a government office does answer the telephone, reporters are told to submit their questions by e-mail, which can easily be ignored.
But these 11 new spokespersons were required to hand out their business cards, with their phone numbers.
There’s still a very long way to go before hacks and flacks in China learn to work with each other. It will be years before spokespersons routinely return reporters’ calls, and the notion of a spokesperson initiating contact with a reporter to offer information unasked is unimaginable.
But this publicly taken step is a good beginning. Like the first human step onto the moon, it doesn’t go very far, but the important fact is that it was done at all.