WASHINGTON: The Chinese government may never be known for transparency, but it is now taking at least one major step in that direction: the creation of its first national network of spokespeople.
And it is using American communicators - including from Hill & Knowlton - to train them.
China saw the downside of global stonewalling last year after denying a widespread outbreak of SARS. The fallout from that crisis, coupled with the rising presence of foreign journalists and the emergence of independent media in the country, has compelled the Chinese to create two tiers of spokespeople, national (or central) and regional.
"We want to do this because we want to have more transparency in government affairs," said Jian Hua Li, acting deputy spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
He acknowledged the role the SARS crisis played in the decision. "SARS is probably a good reason for the government to do this," he said.
Training on the national level is being organized by the State Council of Information Office. H&K, Ketchum, and APCO are among the firms that have at least been asked to lend a hand - nearly always pro bono.
Frances Sun confirmed that H&K's Beijing office, where she is a director, was helping train the top tier of spokespeople from the Ministries of Central Government.
"As [for] the provincial and city level, there are other agencies to share this market," she added. "Just think, if all the cities need one trained spokesperson, this is a big market."
Chris Murck, MD of APCO China, said his firm occasionally acts as "informal advisers" on PR matters to the Chinese government but wasn't formally helping train anyone. He did, however, recently deliver an address at a media-training seminar for government workers.
"Judging from the questions I got, they picked it up quickly," he said. "They were asking me, 'What do you do when you're a spokesman and you don't know what's going on?'"
To be sure, the Chinese government has long had "spokespeople." Their work, however, consisted mostly of issuing denials or telling state-paid journalists what to write. The current crop is different, those close to the situation say, because they are being instructed to obey Western journalistic standards.
Murck positioned the move as a small but important step for a secretive government facing the realities of modern media.
"I don't think it means the Chinese government is going to magically become more open or transparent," he said, "but it does show they are definitely becoming more professional in the way they deal with the press."