A book that teaches dour Communist officials how to abandon old-fashioned propaganda diktats and embrace the techniques of modern spin doctors has become a bestseller in China.
“The Art of Guiding Public Opinion” by Ren Xianliang has now gone into its fifth edition since being published last April, with some government offices placing orders for 50 to 100 books.
Its publisher said it had sold four to five times as many copies as expected.
“Even though the media is run by the Party,” the book says, “you should not lecture journalists [and] do not be hostile to journalists because they are not your enemy, but your partner.”
Furthermore, the book advises officials to “remain calm” in the face of “difficult, pain-inducing questions” and not to “fly into a rage”.
“Chinese journalists,” it says, “have basically the same goals as the government, so they do not normally maliciously challenge officials.
"When it comes to those edgy and thorny journalists, the really outstanding ones, officials should be calm and friendly and try not to argue too much.” Chinese officials should be modest, plain-spoken and transparent and should never refuse to answer questions in public for fear of allowing rumours to spread, the book says.
In addition, they should prepare thoroughly for interviews, gather information on the journalist “such as his interview techniques and goals” and learn how to “give out brilliant answers and think about the effects [they] want to achieve.”
However, the book cautions, officials should avoid “some specific questions” and try to talk more about “ideas that everyone has accepted” and less about “controversial issues”.
Do not, the book warns, leak any secrets. “Officials should say: 'Sorry, I cannot talk about this issue as per the relevant regulations’,” the book advises.
The author of the book, Mr Ren, was a journalist with Xinhua, the state news agency, before becoming a relatively senior official in Shaanxi province. Unfortunately, although his book notes that “most of the foreign journalists who come to China are objective, impartial and friendly,” he declined to be interviewed.
Zhao Zhenyu, a professor at the Journalism School of Huazhong University in Wuhan, said the book was laudable, but doubted that government officials would really take it all to heart. “The problem is that cadres fear journalists and avoid them.” He said the university now runs classes to “help cadres understand that journalism is different from propaganda”.
President Hu Jintao ordered propaganda officials just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to refocus their efforts away from suppressing negative news and towards spinning news that makes the leadership look good. But the Chinese media has since been able to report more freely on major scandals and disasters, China’s central Propaganda department maintains a strict control over the system.