Little red business packets threaten to cause red faces
Mainland companies have been warned that the red packets routinely handed out at press conferences could become an international embarrassment if the practice spreads to Hong Kong and beyond.
Press kits prepared for journalists often include a red envelope containing cash. They are a traditional way to express good wishes or gratitude.
But their use by companies seeking positive media coverage, while common on the mainland, rings alarm bells elsewhere.
A coupon worth HK$1,000 was attached to a mainland company's invitation to a media briefing about a Hong Kong marketing campaign that was sent to the South China Morning Post recently.
Eugene Sun, a Beijing-based public relations consultant, says mainland companies should follow international marketing practices in their overseas campaigns. They must realise that 'paid news' is unacceptable in countries with legal systems governing corporate behaviour.
'It can be counter-productive to a company's branding power and a downright embarrassment to China,' he says.
Hong Kong Journalists' Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting says the practice has been a serious problem for some time - and the amount of money involved is increasing.
'Hong Kong journalists used to not accept such red packets,' Mak says. But many mainland companies now describe the cash given to journalists as 'transportation fees'.
Mak says some mainland companies have started offering Hong Kong journalists valuable souvenirs after discovering they are reluctant to accept red packets.
Li Datong, an editor at China Youth Daily, says it is not the companies that are to blame. 'The culprit is the Chinese system, which makes journalists do this or that, following orders from above and depriving them of their sense of honour and their self-esteem,' he says.
Because the mainland media can operate without worrying about the quality of its reporting, and journalists can advance their careers without making any effort to protect public interests or expose corruption scandals, 'the system has rendered society's moral values useless, and who would care about them any more?'
From time to time, the propaganda authorities and the mainland's official journalists' association issue rules banning paid news and another mainland media phenomenon - paying journalists not to report bad news.
But Li says that banning such practices is easier said than done because the system has become a social phenomenon.
Li Hong, a columnist on the People's Daily web site, says there is also an economic reason for paid news.
When the economy boomed in the 1990s there were many new companies with goods and services to sell but only a small advertising industry and an even smaller public relations industry. The door had not been opened up to international marketing companies and their practices.
'What else could the local companies do when they wanted to sell things?' Li Hong says. 'They knew only one magic bullet. You gave a bundle of cash to whoever could help sell your stuff, and that's it.'
The result: paid news, paid press conferences and paid press tours.
Another reality is that journalism was, and still largely is, a low-paid profession on the mainland, partly because of a lack of competition. There are still many reporters in their 30s and early 40s who make 5,000 yuan (HK$5,970) or less a month.
Li Hong says only a few media organisations, with strategic investors from outside the state sector, rigorously clamp down on red packets while paying their reporters more, based on the quality of their work.
Wang Zhuo remembers being given a red packet on her first assignment during her internship. 'I was stunned by what I saw in the envelope,' she says. 'I thought it was ugly. And it happened right inside the Great Hall of the People. I'd never learned about that at school. I was told by an older reporter to just take it. He said that if I gave it back, it would make all the other reporters feel bad.'
Now making 8,000 yuan a month, Wang says: 'Maybe it's right to give some travel allowance to reporters, considering that a taxi trip in Beijing can easily cost 80 yuan, if not more.'
Fan Hai says he needs the money to pay for his fuel. 'I sometimes get three or four press events a day,' he says. 'And petrol prices climb almost every month. How can anyone like me keep working and go without those little red packets?'
Additional reporting by Phyllis Tsang