China’s Media Relations

Public relations and media relations tend to go hand-in-hand in the States. While many would argue that media relations are just one component of public relations, for the most part they are considered one and the same. Not in China. As an industry, public relations is not well understood in part because the government – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – has for so long mastered the art of media relations through its control of the press.

As forcefully successful as the CCP has been at ”media relations,” it most decidedly does not serve a ”public relations” role in China. Although the government dictates TV shows, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, this type of propaganda placement has an increasingly limited influence on the Chinese people. The government can decide what is aired and what runs in print, but without a successful PR strategy backing media placements it is difficult to make the public believe what they see or read, especially when banned social media networks are just a hidden click away.

Recent articles outside of China about the government’s problems with the internet, censorship, and intellectual property theft have been numerous and scathing. The situation with Google has led to what the Huffington Post has aptly named: ”Silicon Valley’s new foreign policy.” China’s reluctance to discuss openly the issue has garnered a lot of criticism. From a PR standpoint, in this time of crisis one might ask, where is the statement? Yet even if the government does officially respond, noticeably absent will be the voice of who they are feigning to speak for – the Chinese people.

In an attempt to gain an insider’s perspective, I tried to engage my family in Shanghai in a conversation about Google through email. I was surprised by the silence. My relatives in China are professors and will discuss practically any subject at a length that is greater than the average attention span. Yet, I know that their silence on this topic does not mean they do not care. On the contrary, in China, the more urgent and volatile the subject matter, the more likely that it will be discussed behind closed doors in the privacy of one’s home. Once the doors are shut, the TVs turned off and the newspapers stacked away, the true voice of China can be heard in the hushed conversations held in millions of homes across the country. The lack of public protest in no way reflects opinions expressed in the private sphere.

And what about China’s youth? There are pictures circulating on the internet of young people placing flowers in front of Google’s office in Beijing to show support for the company. The young generation, the ”little emperors” as they are called, have become famous for their unapologetic materialism and quick adaptation to new trends, especially in technology. Can such a forward-looking generation accept internet censorship? More importantly, have they really had to? When alcohol was banned during the Prohibition period in the United States, speakeasies thrived and a number of books once banned by the U.S. government have now become staples on high school reading lists. In China too, censorship has had mixed results. Although Facebook is ”banned” in China, my cousins in Shanghai are all, quite expectedly, still on it. Similarly, ”Prison Break” is banned from the airwaves, but that has not stopped it from being wildly popular in China. Michael Scofield’s next move? My friends at Tsinghua University in Beijing know more about it than I do.

The CCP has maintained its control over traditional media. But as new and social media gain traction across the globe, it is impossible to keep these influences out of China. The Chinese government may dominate media relations, but it is the Chinese people who have truly started to experiment with broader aspects of public relations. There may be no Chinese equivalent of Glenn Beck or Slavoj Zizek splashed across the airwaves or published in the local paper, but just because freedom of thought in China does not yet equal freedom of speech does not mean it does not exist at all. After all, an independent media and freedom of speech is bread and butter to Americans, but the Chinese have been eating rice for centuries.

Posted by: Cece Cheng