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Foreign journalists see room for improvement by Chinese spokesmen
Updated: 2004-05-22 15:19

Foreign journalists working in China have seen many changes and advances in the country's spokesman system, but many say there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"Chinese spokesmen of different ministries are getting better, but still need to improve," said Philip Pan, a journalist with the Washington Post who has worked in China for three and a half years.

Anthony Kuhn, a foreign journalist working for the Far Eastern Economic Review, shared a similar view.

Kuhn came to China five years ago and did not know who the spokesmen were back then. Now the Chinese foreign ministry gives all the contact information of the spokesmen to foreign journalists, including cell phone numbers.

"It is totally different from the '90s now," said Kuhn.

China adopted the spokesman system in the 1980s, first in the foreign ministry. The system has expanded to most of the ministries, and a batch of provincial and municipal governments in the past couple of years.

Though more spokesmen are emerging, foreign journalists have the impression that Chinese spokesmen's latitude to answer questions is still restricted.

"If they don't know exactly what to answer, they will not answer," said Boris Cambreleng with AFP. "Sometimes they give an answer, but it is not to your question. It is just a standard answer."

Cambreleng thinks foreign ministry spokesmen are better in answering questions. "They can answer some questions that probably are not prepared before," he said. "They seem to have a broad guideline that gives them some latitude of what they can say."

Kuhn has found an interesting thing in China. The higher- ranking the officials that host the press conference, the more information will be revealed. "We all like [former Premier] Zhu Rongji and [Beijing Mayor] Wang Qishan's press conferences," said Kuhn, who said he appreciated their direct way of speaking.

"It is a question of empowerment,"said Cambreleng. The spokesman should be empowered to some extent to answer questions."

"In China, spokesmen are usually not high-ranking officials in their own departments, that is why they are intimidated to answer some questions," said Wu Jianmin, a former spokesman of the foreign ministry and former Chinese ambassador to France.

Besides the way of answering questions, foreign journalists also complained about the efficiency of Chinese press officers.

"People want written questions," Cambreleng said. "They can't answer oral questions and they need time to answer it. That is not usually the function of spokesman."

"Working in China is much slower than in any other country that I have worked for," said Pan. "Sometimes, they don't even return your call. Sometimes they can't help you."

Chua Chin Hon with the Straits Times of Singapore, planned to take an interview in a province which mass-slaughtered civet cats this January. He contacted various departments of the local government several times for permission, but nobody could give a definite answer. The interview was delayed.

"I don't require them to give the permission, but at least, there should be somebody out there to give an answer," said Chua. Things should be easier with provinces who have appointed spokesmen.

Chua said he has noticed that a training program for spokesmen is going on these days. "If the program could continue, it will surely help polish the skills of spokesmen," said Chua.

The Information Office of the State Council organized two training courses on how to facilitate communication for spokesmen last year, one in September and one in November. The third course was held this week.

Wu Jianmin said Chinese officials have not got used to facing the press, and therefore don't feel comfortable with the journalists, especially foreign journalists.

"With more and more training and empowerment, Chinese spokesmen will surely become more confident," Wu said.

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