Xinhua ignores the messenger for the message

Andy Ho

CHINESE officials are not known for their dexterity in public relations. But the media performance of China's representatives in Hong Kong has left so much to be desired that they have even fallen below mainland standards.

It is not that the communist bureaucrats at Xinhua (the New China News Agency) and the Chinese team of the Joint Liaison Group are unconcerned about their image.

Zhou Nan, the director of Xinhua, for example, was said to have been upset by the findings of a survey concerning the public's impression of him. A Chinese-language daily recently commissioned an opinion poll in order to gauge how the two top British andChinese appointees in Hong Kong compare with each other. Mr Zhou turned out to be dwarfed by the Governor, Mr Chris Patten, in terms of popularity.

Senior Xinhua officials were so upset by the front page report on the results that they had admonished the editors in a private session. The Chinese officials were convinced that it was inappropriate for a news organisation to sponsor such a so-called independent survey on the topic in the first place.

In their eyes, Mr Patten has been exploiting the news media to give legitimacy to his provocative moves against China. According to them, the British have been using public relations to mislead and divert public attention from the substantial issues.

It follows that it is imperative for the media to expose the ulterior motives of the British in the run-up to 1997. It is thus, they argue, both unfair and superficial for a daily to have conducted an opinion poll which elevated Mr Patten at the expenseof Mr Zhou.

The Chinese officials seem to understand that they have been out-manoeuvred by Mr Patten in using the media for image-building. Yet their oversight of the need for basic etiquette before television cameras has been conspicuous. It is rather common for the deputy directors of Xinhua to make their own points to the press corps at public functions. But they seldom bother to take impromptu questions from reporters, before they shove the microphones away.

Many a time has the designated Xinhua spokesman, Zhang Jinsheng, been seen on the evening newscasts turning his back on the rolling cameras. Sometimes the Chinese officials don't even take the trouble to pause for a proper ''no comment'', even when besieged by a dozen enthusiastic journalists in a crowded function room. Instead, many of them simply keep on walking.

These images have probably left an unfavourable impression of arrogance on the audience, which reinforces the widespread feeling that the Chinese officials take the media as a tool for propaganda rather than a social watchdog.

Guo Fengmin, the senior representative of the Chinese team of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, is supposedly a veteran diplomat. He has acquired an ambassador's title and was among the first generation of diplomats dispatched by the Chinese Communist Party to Western Europe.

When he assumed office here, some Asian diplomats noticed that Mr Guo's teeth had been tainted by nicotine. But recently they have noted a marked improvement in his appearance and speculated that he had probably gone through some dental operations. He also appears to have chosen more expensive business suits of a better cut.

Despite the improvements, he has still been seen smoking while hosting major press conferences. Mr Guo also has a habit of swivelling his head while talking to press cameras, thus leaving an image which borders on the disdainful.

If the Chinese is to put up somebody to counter Mr Patten's views, Mr Zhou at the rank of deputy Foreign Minister would be the most senior Chinese voice in Hong Kong. However, unlike his opposite number in the Hong Kong Government, the director does notcare much about media exposure and has delegated much of the talking to his deputies. Mr Zhou took the helm at Xinhua from Xu Jiatun soon after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But he has yet to appear on a proper public affairs talk show to state China's case in the current controversies.

He seems to be more comfortable speaking to the press in his home turf, while attending meetings on Hong Kong in the Chinese capital. Reporters have noticed that most of his recent public comments were made during occasions, such as the working sessionsof the Preliminary Working Group for the Preparatory Committee of the future Special Administrative Government.

Mr Zhou, however, has rarely volunteered to speak to the press corps even when he is approached at public events. This has been interpreted widely as signs of his deteriorating health or even troubles in his civil service career. The Xinhua officials are well aware of such small talk but Mr Zhou does not consider it serious enough to take more positive action to counter the rumours.

Mr Patten, on the other hand, has made himself available to all local electronic news media. Although the editorial lines of most local newspapers do not favour Mr Patten, he has managed to sustain a high popularity rating mainly through frequent appearances on television. Mr Patten's forceful performance has made up for his handicap in being unable to speak the local language.

In contrast, the Chinese officials have yet to nurture a media culture to make the most of the information technologies. But before they start learning how to handle the media more skilfully, the Chinese bureaucrats should perhaps first seek to overcometheir instinct to shun reporters.