The Chinese government has always sent its officials to training courses to places like the Party Schools, to learn the Marx and Lenin theory and the glorious history of the Chinese Communist Party. Now the officials are being sent to universities to learn something very different – PR.
While in Guangzhou for a talk, I just met up with a young professor teaching at the Communication Institute of Sun Yat-Sun University. He has just taught at a training course attended by 90 government officials from all over Guangdong province. During the three and a half day course, (the half day was reserved for sightseeing), they learnt about communication, managing the media, crisis management and such.
I asked my friend if these officials were interested in what he had to say. He smiled and said he wasn’t sure. Some took notes while the others dozed at his class. Some just saw this as a sightseeing opportunity. What interested them most was his analysis of ‘Wukan Incident’ – referring to the brazen protests by the villagers from Wukan in Guangdong province against the land grab in the end of 2011. It was an economic issue and therefore be treated as so, my friend argued, but the local authority made a mistake by escalating it to a social and political issue. At first, the official-run newspapers stated that the demonstration was ‘incited by a small handful of people’ and by ‘some hostile force from abroad’.
All of those participants are officials working in weiwen – maintaining stability. As the discontentment in the grass root level increases and the ordinary people are more ready to take to the street to fight for their rights, the weiwen army has been expanding steadily and so has the expense. It is commonly believed that China spends more money on weiwen than on military expense (I also heard it is a state secret!)
Most people outside China have little idea about weiwen. Let me give you an example. The guys who camped at blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s house and watched him 24 hours a day were all weiwen officials and this spring, when Chen’s friends came to celebrate his mother’s birthday, it was also weiwen guys who came and dispersed the party.
It is certainly a big progress that the authorities have realized that the officials need to learn about communication and PR. Some senior government officials have attended training programs in Britain and Singapore to learn about politics and western style management. However, for China’s long term stability, there should be more channels for people to express their grievances so that people who have been wronged wouldn’t take extreme measures such as blowing himself up like Cai Zhongxing, the man in wheel-chair did at the Capital Airport earlier this month.