Face up to the foreign media more often

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2008, 12:00am

President Hu Jintao's rare interview on Friday with a select group of foreign reporters, just one week before the Olympic Games, was newsworthy, but not because Mr Hu broke any news.

It was more about timing and the fact he spent 70 minutes answering questions from about 25 foreign media organisations carefully selected to represent the diversity of nearly 20,000 foreign journalists from every corner of the world who have converged on Beijing to cover the Games.

Timing is very important. Just one week ahead of the Games, the mainland authorities had received a barrage of negative publicity in the foreign media over their efforts to censor internet access, pollution in the capital, and the mainland's human rights record.

Mr Hu's face-to-face meeting with foreign journalists will help the mainland regain the upper hand in the public relations battle and help dispel widespread scepticism on whether various pledges Beijing made to win the Games will continue afterwards. It was more than a coincidence that authorities unblocked internet access to sites including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders on the day of Mr Hu's media meeting.

It is heartening to learn that Mr Hu has pledged to pursue comprehensive economic and political reforms after the Olympics.

As one of the Olympic legacies, he promised that the mainland would strive to promote environmental protection to 'make the sky bluer, the land greener and the water clearer', and to spread the conservation culture to every corner of the country.

This should also be comforting to millions of long-suffering residents in the capital who cannot help wonder about pollution in post-Olympic days when IOC officials and athletes have left town, banned vehicles are back on the roads, and hundreds of polluting factories in Beijing and surrounding provinces resume production.

The overseas media has invariably described Mr Hu's press interview as 'rare'.

This may well be Mr Hu's longest interview to a relatively big group of foreign journalists in his nearly six years as China's top leader.

Previously, Mr Hu had been interviewed by foreign media only a few times, mostly in the form of him standing along with foreign heads of state addressing a few questions from reporters, and courtesy meetings with foreign journalists ahead of his visit to their countries.

The positive reactions from the media should encourage Mr Hu and other top leaders to meet the foreign media more frequently and more openly in the future.

Such meetings are crucial to enable the outside world to gain a better and more authoritative understanding of the mainland's policies and positions, particularly at a time when its economic rise has led to concerns and misunderstandings of its intentions in many parts of the world. The top leaders are known as being averse to giving interviews, not only to overseas journalists but also to mainland journalists, over whom they have total control on what they can or cannot write.

When they do give interviews, the events are carefully scripted with questions screened and replies prepared in advance.

They often appear motionless and emotionless, lacking in gesture or facial expressions, leading some overseas media to describe mainland leaders as 'wooden' or 'staid'.

Premier Wen Jiabao is an exception.

In addition to the annual press conference in March following the plenary session of the National People's Congress, where he speaks with plenty of gestures and emotion, Mr Wen often gives impromptu press briefings to Hong Kong reporters during his visits overseas, although, curiously, many of his remarks are not picked up by the mainland press.

The top leaders' aversion to overseas reporters is naturally shared by other mainland officials. Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang jokingly told a group of top editors of Hong Kong media organisations last month that there was a popular saying on the mainland that people had three things to guard against: fire, theft and reporters.

This mentality needs to change. Beijing's hosting of the Olympics is intended to showcase a rising China to be open, confident, mature and magnanimous.

There is no better way to convey that message and reduce misunderstanding than for top mainland leaders to face the foreign media more frequently.

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