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Silence isn't golden when in the public eye

Silence isn't golden when in the public eye

Updated: 2012-04-18 07:36

By Zheng Xin (China Daily)

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Most government spokesmen play it safe and say less when besieged by the media or queried by the public. Just like the old Chinese saying goes: Least said, soonest mended.

However, Du Shaozhong, former spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, disagrees with the mainstream idea.

"It's a risky profession," Du told China Daily. "Yet 'silence is golden' is never the way out, anyway."

Du seldom avoided sensitive questions from the media and public, and always responded with witty and sharp replies.

"I was ready for resignation every time before a news conference," said the 58-year-old Beijing native. "It's a miracle I survived all of the challenges."

Du took on a lot of extra duties, ones that weren't a part of his job. He was the first government spokesman in the country to open an account on Sina Weibo - a popular Chinese micro-blogging website - long before government departments started their official accounts.

During work breaks and after hours, Du would share environmental protection information and discuss hot topics with the public on his weibo account.

The "wolf king", as Du addresses himself on weibo, has attracted some 860,000 followers.

"It's sometimes dangerous to talk too much online since there is no 'next time' if I say something wrong," Du said. "However recoiling in fear is never the way out either."

In his last heated discussion with followers as a spokesman, Du said used batteries could be buried with other household waste without any risk of contamination, since the amount of mercury contained in batteries in China is very low.

However, many people criticized his claim, saying the total amount of mercury could accumulate.

Du told China Daily that the intent of his post was to raise awareness of the problems created by used batteries.

"Through the few words I posted, many people are more aware of the situation of used batteries in our country, which is positive in pushing forward a proper treatment for the batteries," he said.

"The criticisms and abuses are worth it," he added.

That is a typical example of Du's working style and the pressure he faced as a spokesman.

Last autumn was one of the most challenging periods of Du's job. The capital, together with several other cities nationwide, were shrouded by persistent smog as the heating season began.

Extremely high readings of PM 2.5 - particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter - detected by the US embassy in Beijing led to intense public outcry.

"I almost got all the scoldings and blame in my life in those days," he said. "I was even uncertain whether I could make it at that time."

Du said the pollution was not caused by the environmental protection bureau. But when the air quality worsened, Du was the one who took the brunt of the public's criticism. Some furious netizens wrote comments that were disrespectful to his family, he said.

"I felt wronged sometimes for being the scapegoat, but I gradually learned not to take all the curses and abuses personally, since this was what the job was about," Du said. "I know that as long as I persist long enough, there will be the day that I am understood."

The crisis prompted the county to adopt stricter air quality standards in February.

"The intense online discussion finally pushed for stricter regulations. All the criticism I got was worth it," he said.

Du started working at the capital's environmental protection bureau in 2000. Three years later, he was named spokesman of the bureau.

While on the job, Du witnessed the elimination of the "yellow label automobiles"-polluting vehicles produced before 1996 in the capital - the installation of gas stoves for heating in most households and the gradual switch from coal-fired power plants and heating facilities to natural gas.

But Du said the most inspiring change has been the rising awareness of the public.

"I used to chase after the media and beg them to publish more news and information about environment protection," Du said. "Yet people in those days hardly cared since no one related the environment to their health and quality of life."

Du said the question he's been asked most is when the air in the capital will be fine.

"I don't know when the air quality will get good," said Du. "But I know it's getting better every day."

When Du was appointed inspector of the bureau in February 2011, he said he felt a great sense of relief.

"I like delivering the government's message to common folks," he said. "However, it's also nice not being called by the media in the middle of the night or getting bombarded for a slip of the tongue. I just want a life of peace and simplicity."

Du said he would continue to promote environmental protection in online discussions with his weibo followers.

"Despite my resignation as spokesman, my passion for environmental protection hasn't faded."