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The Pain and Joy of Speaking

2009/09/28

 

Wang Xuming has many titles: publisher, TV anchor, blogger.  And since his first book hit the market in August, writer. Yet, he is mostly remembered as "spokesperson of Ministry of Education (MOE)", a title was deprived a year ago.

Wang was perhaps the most controversial spokespeople of the central government agencies. Unlike many Chinese officials, who prefer to keep a low profile, Wang loves to be under the spotlight and is not reluctant to express his opinions. Some journalists joked that he seemed to be the second in charge at the MOE after the Minister.

In a country where people traditionally believe an official should be prudent, modest and reticent, Wang broke the stereotype in many ways, for which he was both admired and detested intensely.

 

A rare Species

 

A bouquet of roses stands on the coffee table in his office. Already withered, it was a gift from several journalists a month ago.  "I received the flowers on July 18, the day I left the post of spokesperson a year ago," says Wang, wearing a checkered T-shirt, and Eau de Cologne, with his hair neatly combed.

Among all the government spokespersons, he was the one whom the press criticized most.  But when he left, many journalists seemed to miss him.

His re-appointment as president of the Language and Culture Press, a small state-owned publishing house, last year was widely reported. Given the fact that he was only vice-director of a department in the ministry, the huge public focus on his job change seems odd.

Journalists at large agree that Wang is a rare case among the government spokespersons for his candor and truthfulness. They also remember that he never once replied "No comment" and never read documents in his press conferences.

"As a spokesperson, he never dismissed journalists with perfunctory remarks nor steered clear of the crucial point. He had the courage to express his likes and dislikes, which made him different from many other officials who hide their real thoughts in order to make their remarks flawless," a comment on the Nanjing-based Yangtse Evening newspaper said.

When Wang was about to take the post in the publishing house, he did not conceal his love for being a spokesman. "I am in tearless grief," he said. He also told the media to protect and cherish good spokespersons because they are "a rare species like the panda." His remarks reinforced public speculation that he was ousted from the post because he is too outspoken, and talked too much.

Yet, Wang says he is a step higher in the cadre rank. As president of the publishing house, his position is equal to director of a department in the ministry. But he does understand why many would think that he has been consigned to a limbo.

"Frankly, I myself had no idea of the Language and Culture Press when I received the transfer order. Among the three publishing houses owned by the Ministry of Education, this is the smallest," he says. "Therefore, in the eyes of many people, I was demoted."

Wang admits that some of his colleagues advised him not to talk too much and risk jeopardizing his official career, but he says he knows what he is doing.

"I worked in the MOE for 11 years. I knew the rules of being an official. I am not stupid. But I wanted to be a spokesperson with emotions instead of only being a government mouthpiece."

Wang argues he is always open to criticism, but he cannot accept the judgment that as a spokesman, he was unprofessional and crossed the line.

"Some said a spokesperson should only deliver government policies and information and avoid expressing opinions. I do not agree.

"I know the safe way for a spokesman is to read documents, but I will never do that. I firmly believe that I should defend the State's position in my own language even though that would be more risky," he says.

 

Quotations of Wang

 

After his five-year tenure as MOE spokesman, Wang left a legacy of quotes all bearing the imprint of his character. Those comments frequently got him in trouble. They have appeared on the Internet in a compilation titled "The Quotations of Wang."

For example, on the report that college graduates had difficulty finding jobs and some chose to work as pig farmers, Wang advised the media: "No need for such a fuss about it. If someone goes into pig farming after acquiring so much knowledge, he is likely to be a creative pig farmer."

On the complaint about some universities' high charges, he commented, going to college is "like shopping for clothes - there are clothes costing 10,000 yuan apiece, and there are those costing just around 100 yuan".

The "careless" comments, made during a casual talk with a few journalists, put him under storm of vehement public criticism once they were reported. Securities Review in the southernmost island province Hainan, issued a commentary, saying that Wang should resign because he did not see the reality of China's education and was unqualified for being a spokesman. 

In another case, he almost turned himself into an enemy of the media by accusing some media of being "ignorant."

The incident came after sustained media campaigns for public donations to poor children in education in 2006. Accusing the media of playing up individual cases, Wang said the government had already allocated tens of billions of yuan to help poor students and set up a well-structured system to finance them.

"Some media show no interest in those key State policies like education loans for needy students. This, to put it mildly, is a case of ignorance. And to put it more seriously, I think it shows a lack of due respect for State policies," Wang said at a press conference.

For this he came under a barrage of media and public attacks and some called for his resignation. But Wang shows no regret. "I wanted to provoke the media. The debate over who is ignorant is just the surface. The core point is the policy."

Wang says he had devoted great passion and energy to introduce the policy, which could benefit millions of poor students, and he hoped it would be explained to the public through the media. He was indignant when some media appeared to ignore it. "As long as the policy is publicized and thoroughly understood, I do not fear being cut to pieces," he said.

In contrast to mixed public views, Wang's performance has been appreciated by many Chinese scholars, who participated in training government spokespersons.

"Whenever journalists saw Wang, they were expecting to get unexpected news from him," says Li Xiguang, executive president of the School of Journalism and Communication of  the Tsinghua University. Li and his colleagues helped train China's first group of government spokespersons, including Wang, appointed after the SARS crisis in 2003.

"In a communication environment that is full of monotonous official jargons , Wang is the person who could feed journalists with satisfying news," says Li.

Zhou Qingan, a researcher with the International Communication Center of Tsinghua University, says most Chinese government spokespersons are officials who do not have other career backgrounds. But Wang is a former teacher and reporter so he understands China's education at the grassroots, and how the media operates.

Wang worked in a high school in Beijing as a Chinese teacher for five years. He also worked as a journalist on a Beijing newspaper for seven years before joining the MOE in 1998.

Zhou says he frequently discusses Wang's case with other officials in spokespersons training courses. "Even though some of his comments triggered debate and criticism, we cannot deny that he actually improved public understanding of the country's educational policies.

"Wang has done some good in delivering government information in the language that the public appreciates. Although his performance might not be perfect, I personally think such attempts should be encouraged. There are too few spokespersons like him in China."

 

Keep Speaking

 

In Wang's dictionary, the term "low profile" does not exist.

Just as people expect him to gradually disappear from public sight with his job change, he is frequently seen on TV, either debating educational problems or hosting his own talk show on educational issues.

His 30-minute program is shown every Saturday night on the Heilongjiang Satellite TV. As an incumbent official, he is perhaps the first to do so in China.

Wang admits that making the talk show is "extremely difficult" for him and a lot of criticisms have either questioned his motives or accused him of seeking fame. But he does not care.

"Education concerns every family. Talking about education is not some people's privilege. Why can't I talk about it? Even if I want to be famous, what's wrong with that? Why should I have to live in obscurity?" he says.

He is also writing blogs on key Chinese websites, commenting on social issues and educational topics. Over the past year, he has written more than 100 postings and his articles attract tens of thousands of visits and comments.

In his book, For the Sake of Openness, he gives a frank opinion of China's spokesperson system. "My past experience, being a spokesperson in particular,  made me realize the importance, the benefit, the bitterness and difficulty of openness. Openness refers to not only making public the policies and information, but also having an open mentality and concept," Wang says in his book.

Wang admits that he still has a passion for being a spokesperson. Whenever he sees po-faced government spokespersons reading documents, or humming and hawing when answering questions, he has impulse to jump on the stage to speak for them.

But, Wang said he does not want to be a spokesperson again. "The last thing I want to do is to repeat myself," he says.

"My life has moved on. I hope I can experience different posts and take more risks. That's why I spend all my spare time hosting TV programs and writing books and blogs. I am not afraid of challenges. I am afraid of stagnancy." 

 

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