And Finally

Don’t forget your toothbrush

The darker side of press relations in China

Don’t forget your toothbrush

In Europe and America the PR industry works its magic by befuddling journalists with a combination of spin, charm and expensive lunches at the Four Seasons. In China, PR techniques are a lot less sophisticated. Mostly they consist of giving the reporter cold cash.

Philip Pan recalls interviewing one of China’s most successful female entrepreneurs when he was the Beijing correspondent for the Washington Post. In his book Out of Mao’s Shadow Pan notes that at the end of the meeting she insisted on giving him money and a cashmere coat. “The coat cost nearly $500, according to the price tag still attached to it,” he writes. “I objected strenuously telling her that American journalists generally did not accept gifts and that it was against the Washington Post’s policies.”

But the entrepreneur insisted he try the coat for size. Refusal would be taken as a personal insult, Pan was warned. Eventually a compromise was reached in which Pan took the items but assured her he’d donate them to charity.

Given this background, you may be surprised to read of the brouhaha linked to a recent online blog posting by journalist Chen Yong. Chen was at the CPPCC (see WiC98) where one of China’s richest men – and a CPPCC delegate – was giving a press conference. Although he did not attend the briefing himself (convened by Liu Yonghao, chairman of the New Hope Group) Chen discovered that each of the 80 reporters present had received Liu’s biography, inserted into which was a red envelope containing Rmb400 ($61).

Chen later wrote about this on his weibo (a local Twitter-like equivalent), talking about how Liu had given the journalists “a small fortune”. The remark was forwarded around the web, with internet users questioning whether the tycoon’s act was designed to “win over journalists and bribe the media,” reports the Economic Observer. Liu’s red envelopes were soon being called ‘bribery-gate’.

New Hope quickly tried to deflect the bad publicity. The group’s head of PR wrote on her own weibo that the money was intended only as reimbursement for travel expenses and there was nothing wrong with offering it. (She stopped short of saying that every Chinese company does it.)

Chen later received a gift from New Hope too – an electric toothbrush. “I was furious,” he wrote in an article for the Economic Observer. Why? Chen’s gift seems to have been designed with a message in mind – in China a gift (and the context in which it’s given) is often loaded with meaning. In this case giving him the toothbrush was code for an insult: ‘your mouth is too dirty to say anything positive’.

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