Culture clash can cloud the good news

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2008, 12:00am

A month after stepping down as Hong Kong's environment minister last July, Sarah Liao Sau-tung took on a new role as a communicator of what she calls 'true and good stories' about a green Beijing Olympics.

'The Olympics is not just about sports, but culture and environment as well. And it is this culture thing that really matters,' said Dr Liao, who has the task of putting a positive spin on environmental issues surrounding the Games.

As an environmental consultant who volunteered to help Beijing's bid for the Games eight years ago, Dr Liao is fluent in the technical jargon involving the newest green technologies and measures adopted for the Games.

But getting what she described as 'leapfrog' achievements in Beijing across to the public has required a little more than technical competence.

Dr Liao, elected a 2007 green leader on the mainland, said cultural differences particularly between the foreign media and mainland officials, made the task more difficult.

In one case, a foreign journalist accused Beijing of manipulating air quality data by moving a monitoring station. But the station had been moved to a spot with even worse pollution to better reflect the true situation.

While the western media tended to be more critical of China, she said some of these negative press reports could have been avoided with sufficient transparency in information and dialogue. 'It may be a tradition for the Chinese to think that they never need to blow their own trumpet as they believe what is genuinely good deserves recognition without questioning,' she said.

This deep-rooted culture, she said, was not conducive to the western-style practice of open debate and sometimes important questions raised by critics were not addressed.

'Definitely, we have to work harder in the communication process over how to tell a good story which is also a true story, no matter how difficult it is,' she said.

Dr Liao, who now spends about half of her time in Beijing, said the Games would leave a long-lasting legacy not just for the capital but for other cities to improve the environment.

She said it was difficult to compare environmental work on the mainland with that in Hong Kong since it involved different management systems, availability of resources and political factors.