Monday, March 31, 2008

Bad cop, worse cop

More free PR advice for the Chinese leadership

I was really saddened to see Wen Jiabao being trotted out to do the denouncing of the D*l*i L*m* the other week. It doesn't do much to help the situation, and I fear it will tend to tarnish Wen's reputation for many overseas observers.

Sure, he's the guy who gives most of the high-level briefings to the foreign media - perhaps one of the few, if not the only one, of the current top leaders here who are smart enough and relaxed enough to deal with foreign journalists convincingly and respond to impromptu questions. And I think he is perceived, both inside and outside China, as a politician with a human face, affable and sincere (although, of course, this might just be a terribly good act)..... whereas poor old Hu always looks as if he's got a steel rod up his arse. And it makes sense to keep Hu out of the limelight right now, since it would probably not be helpful to have too many reminders of his record in relation to Tibet (he was the Party Chief there during the last major outbreak of protests in 1989; and it was his tough crackdown on that unrest - alleged to have resulted in some hundreds of deaths - that helped to propel him into the Politburo shortly afterwards).

However, it is disappointing to see Wen having to parrot the party line about "the D*l*i clique" and "evil splittists". This might have been an opportunity for Wen to make use of his more moderate and genial image to soften the presentation of the Chinese government's line to the outside world. It would surely have been possible, without necessarily contradicting or disowning the 'official version', to tone down the language used, to spin the message a little differently. I would like to see this whole "D*l*i clique" nonsense dropped from the foreign press briefings for a while. And if it has to be addressed, or is brought up in questions, would it be so unthinkable to shift to formulas like "We suspect people close to the D*l*i may have been involved in directing some of the violence" or "We believe the D*l*i and his advisers can and should be doing more to restrain the violence"? Surely not.

I can't help but wonder if Wen is being set up as a fall guy on this. Although the collaboration between himself and Hu Jintao is generally seen as being very close and 'harmonious' (they both began their political careers around the same time in Gansu Province, and both obtained advancement through the support of the same powerful mentors, Song Ping and Hu Yaobang), Wen does seem to be much less of a hardliner on many issues; and there is a curious see-sawing in the amount of media coverage each receives, which might possibly suggest some kind of ideological tension - if not exactly a "power struggle" - between them.

In summary, I would propose dropping the 'demonize the D*l*i' approach altogether. If that is too radical a move, it should at least be possible to tone down the language of that message so that it seems less hysterical and buffoonish to an overseas audience. And you certainly shouldn't compromise the standing of the only one of your leaders who enjoys a really positive reputation overseas by making him the mouthpiece for these extreme and unpalatable statements.

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