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A New Breed of Propaganda Official

From Nation page 9, issue no. 410
Translated by: Zhang Junting
Original article:

A new breed of Chinese propaganda official has arrived, and he's not giving "no comment" for an answer.

Thirty-eight-year-old Wu Hao was transferred late last year from being the second in-charge of Yunnan province's Xinhua News bureau--state media--to the vice-chief of the provincial propaganda department.

A staple of Chinese local government, propaganda departments keep close tabs on public opinion and media, where they often intervene in times of crisis or sensitivity.

As the new vice-chief of Yunnan's propaganda department, Wu has brought a strikingly open approach to the office's tasks of media and public opinion monitoring.

And last month, his new approach came to a critical test after the death of an inmate in police custody led to public outcry.

From "Online Suggestion Box" to "Hide and Seek"
Wu Hao, who hailed from Sichuan province, applied to work in Tibet after graduating from Peking University in 1992. During his time there, he was active online and often posted comments on forums under his real name.

After eight years he was transferred to Yunnan province, where he worked in state media, and ultimately was appointed vice-chief of the province's propaganda department.

Wu pushed several initiatives during the first three months of his tenure--launching real-name chats where journalists could send suggestions to his department; requiring his department to pro-actively suggest hot issues media should cover; opening the top two provincial political meetings to foreign media coverage; and letting local newspapers criticize his work.

But none of those measures put him into the public eye nearly as much as the death of an inmate at a local detention center, or what has become known as the "hide and seek" incident.

Li Qiaoming, who was being held at Jinning County detention center in Yunnan, died on February 12 2009. Police claimed that Li's head hit the wall accidentally while he played hide and seek with other inmates. Unsatisfied with the police department's response, the public demanded a more detailed explanation.

Wu pitched his idea to form a public investigation team to look into the case and verify the police department's story, and received support from those who participated in his online suggestion forum.

After persuading other government departments, Wu invited netizens to take part in the "Hide and Seek Incident Investigation Committee". The committee formed later was made up of four people from political or legal circles, three journalists, and eight netizens.

The group was allowed to enter the detention center and received some cooperation from staff there, but was later refused access to one of the detained suspects and the surveillance video. Even Wu himself felt disappointed when seeing the schedule-like investigative report that the group later submitted.

Meanwhile, public opinion began turning to the other extreme, doubt and discontent began to grow against the propaganda department and Wu's organization of the public investigation given his role as a government official. Many thought Wu had overstepped his power.

Wu responded in an online discussion that the case was a criminal one, but that since the police were not able to reach a credible conclusion in it, it became a controversial issue of public concern.

He said that since the local justice department had already begun their own investigation, the propaganda department should allow the public an opportunity to participate, go to the crime scene, and explore the truth as well.

Netizens and the public were only exercising their right to supervise justice officials, not replacing judicial investigation, Wu reasoned.

As the investigation deepened, many local media began to question the legality of Wu's decisions and directly criticised him. Throughout, he refrained from quieting them via his department's mandate.

"Through this kind of unorthodox management [of the propaganda department] I want to see fiercer debate. In letting media under my jurisdiction criticize me, the more heated the debate is, the more enlightened the public can be," said Wu.

We Are Not Just a Fire Brigade
According to one journalist from Yunnan, before the "hide and seek" incident, evidence of Wu's progressive policies could be seen everywhere in the propaganda field in Yunnan.

Wu first loosened interview restrictions on foreign media during Yunnan's provincial-level political meetings earlier this year. Though only a Pakistan news wire took up the coverage invitation, it was the first time that China opened top political meetings at the provincial level to foreign media.

Wu also planned the live broadcasting of the meetings on television, the internet and on radio, and later organized two rounds of press conferences which were also broadcasted live.

The openness continued to the top two political meetings in Beijing in March, where the Yunnan delegation provided a journalist-friendly atmosphere to both domestic and foreign media.

March 7 was the delegation's first media open house, during which 26 media took part in interviews. In the following days, the Yunnan delegation dedicated an hour and a half each noon to press conferences. No delegation to the top-level congress in history had ever adopted such openness before.

Looking forward, Wu said a series of "grassroots press conferences" would be held in Yunnan, where participants can talk about issues of public concern, such as employment for returned migrant workers, health care and social security.

"Media should enhance its credibility by giving people, including like migrant workers, a platform to speak about their difficulties, frustrations, and happiness," said Wu.

Wu admitted that he had run into significant resistance during his reforms. His colleagues used to advise him not to be too efficient--that when high-profile incidents occured, his department need not to "go the extra mile".

After the "hide and seek" case, some criticized him for "being politically immature, doing the forbidden, and breaking many old rules".

The young vice-chief stressed to the EO that the propaganda department should not play the role of a firefighter during emergencies, cleaning up after government departments that should be responsible for their own messes, which he said violated the purpose of a propaganda department.

Instead, the department should encourage common people to participate in the resolution of news events.

“If you continue pressing the lid when water boils, all you get is a broken kettle bottom. But if you lift the lid, the steam will come out just like the boiling public opinion, and no matter how hot it is, eventually will disperse," Wu said.


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