China's restrictions on foreign media are nothing new. Ever since the country became a new frontier for Western capitalism, the communist nation has been trying to sort out how exactly to deal with outsiders. This year alone has seen clashes of media policies between China and Western juggernauts like Google and Yahoo.
So last week's news that China had imposed broad new restrictions on distribution of foreign news in the country was not a surprise. But in an age where more and more companies, and increasingly PR agencies, are conducting business in the country, any changes that impact a free flow of information and communication warrant attention.
Under the new rules, which took effect immediately, the state-run Xinhua News Agency will require foreign news agencies to distribute stories, photos, and other services solely through Xinhua or entities authorized by Xinhua.
"Xinhua's new rules will have no effect on the way we cover and provide the news globally," says Clayton Haswell, The Associated Press' director for Asia and the Pacific in an e-mail statement. "But this raises serious concerns for AP regarding fair trade and the free flow of information within China."
Samantha Topping, VP and head of PR for Reuters Americas, notes via e-mail that Reuters is examining how the new rules differ from the existing rules and will be in contact with Xinhua to discuss the details of the new regulations.
With a flood of foreign journalists set to swarm the region in 2008 for the Summer Olympics, the media speculated about the policy's effect on foreign coverage of the Beijing Games. But Chinese authorities have promised they will allow the thousands of expected journalists to report freely on any developments during that time.
William Brent, VP at Weber Shandwick's Seattle office and US liaison for the agency's China practice, spent 16 years in the country as a foreign correspondent and media entrepreneur, and notes that the latest news follows a trend.
"The Chinese government is still very wary of too much free flow of information," he says. "The new administration... has taken steps to try and rein in the media. This is just one more indication that [the] trend is real and will continue for the foreseeable future."
Yet the revised policy's direct effect on PR in the region, especially from Western companies and agencies, is unclear. Will Ludlam, MD of Porter Novelli's Seattle office and regional director for the agency's Asia-Pacific region, notes via e-mail that building strategic ties with local media and media experts is the key to building an overall successful media strategy.
"The foreign media don't help you build brand in China," adds Lou Hoffman, president of The Hoffman Agency. "If you want to build brand in China, you need to reach the Chinese media, not the foreign market."
He adds that China has always been wary of foreign news that is potentially sensitive to the government. He describes his agency's recent work for Chiron, promoting blood evaluation machines, as "an exercise in futility" because of the issue of AIDS in China.
"As we were setting up press interviews, we had to go through five or six different layers of bureaucracy to get things set up," he says. "It's always been that way."
And so, the real motivation behind the latest changes in policy is likely financial, but it has become a story for Western media for an entirely different reason.
"There is a bigger story here that the media legitimately continue to cover, and that is how China reconciles this collision course between capitalism and communism," Hoffman says. "That's a hell of a story. That's a story that our kids, 100 years from now, probably will read about in history books."