‘Image master’ advocates public diplomacy to paint vivid picture

By Feng Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/22 19:53:40

Zhao Qizheng Photo: Yang Hui/GT

It's fair to say that Zhao Qizheng's entire career is closely connected to the rise of the People's Republic of China. 

The 79-year-old is internationally known as Pudong Zhao, and China's Image Master, after serving as the first governor of Shanghai's Pudong New Area in the early 1990s and head of China's State Council information office from 1998 to 2005.

"The Chinese central government launched the nationwide reform and opening-up in 1978 and great achievements were witnessed by the world. But the West is still suspicious of Pudong's practice," Zhao told the Global Times, recalling the unfavorable opinion of China at the time.

Zhao meets with George H. W. Bush on January 18, 1994. Photo: Courtesy of Zhao Qizheng

Pudong miracle

"The Western media assumed that 'developing Pudong' was just an empty slogan as opposed to real. They even claimed that Pudong would be a Chinese version of Potemkin Village, a term used to refer to an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact.

"It was my job to speak honestly to all kinds of state leaders, decision makers and potential investors about Shanghai's determination and Pudong's development blueprint. It was normal for me to greet an average of eight groups of guests and visitors a day from all over the world."

Gradually, both Zhao and Pudong made friends worldwide. Among them were former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former US president George H. W. Bush and Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State. Bush once told Zhao, "If I had been 10 years younger, I would also invest in Pudong." Pudong's economic scale in 2009 was twice that of Shanghai's in 1990. It has created and is continuing to create miracles. 

Zhao was not a graduate of public relations or economics, but was one of the first batch of students who majored in nuclear physics from the University of Science and Technology of China in 1963, just after the institution was established.

Zhao meets with Kofi Annan on May 1, 1997. Photo: Courtesy of Zhao Qizheng

Nuclear efforts

"I chose the major in response to the country's call that China should develop its own 'two bombs and man-made satellite' advocated by New China's first generation of leaders," Zhao said.

When Zhao graduated from the university, relations between China and the former Soviet Union had broken down. "With Soviet experts pulling out of China, young scholars like me could play a major role in scientific research and design instead of being an assistant's assistant," Zhao recalled of his experience in the nuclear industry from 1963 to 1974. 

"It was a wise decision for the central government to develop our own nuclear bomb, missile and man-made satellite. It was a foundation and guarantee for China's rise and defense against invasion. It was an honor for me to have the opportunity to have been part of the effort."

He then worked in the aerospace industry before being promoted to municipality-level leadership positions in Shanghai in the 1980s and 1990s. Zhao went to Beijing in 1998 to begin his career in the "China image" field.

Zhao became known around the world as China's spokesman with his counterattack against the Cox report.

In 1999, member of the US House of Representatives Christopher Cox published a report that China's two bombs were stolen from the US, which had a huge impact around the world. "We decided to hold a press conference immediately. We took out the Cox report and examined which of his words were true. Eventually we found that the Cox report was completely groundless."

The nuclear bombs mentioned in the report were actually all present on the website of the US Arms Institute. Those are all open materials. They even claimed that we had stolen an atomic bomb design procedure. It was a pity that Mr. Cox was ignorant. The program was in fact a reactor design program which was an open procedure of the International Atomic Energy Committee. He cited this as evidence that China had stolen the techniques, which is totally fake news, Zhao told the Global Times.

The Cox report rebuttal is a textbook example of Zhao showing how "a true Chinese story is told to portray the real China" to the world.  

Zhao meets with Henry Kissinger on Junuary 18, 1997. Photo: Courtesy of Zhao Qizheng

China image master

As far as China's image is concerned, Zhao said, "Since the Opium War (in 1860), China was a dish carved up by Western powers. Our country suffered great humiliation. After the Communist Party of China led the people to establish a new China, we have since turned over in terms of politics, independent personality and science and technology. Decades of efforts have empowered our country.

"Since 1949, we have made progress every day, so it's no exaggeration to say that we witness a new China every day, especially after China's reform and opening-up policy. The speed of our development is obvious to all. Because there is a constantly developing China every day, we can offer a new image of China every day to the outside world."

Zhao is an advocate of China's government spokesperson system and public diplomacy, urging both government officials and the general public to tell Chinese stories well.

When the words spoken by the public are combined with what the government says, a complete picture of the country is formed. With more international exchanges, individuals are also explaining their countries to the outside world, so the general public shoulders a large role in public diplomacy. The story of China depends on the Chinese public to be told. That part of the story telling is the most authentic, most emotional and most convincing, Zhao said.

He pointed out that although China has long had a government spokesperson system, press conferences are a greater necessity in some places. "Because Chinese people didn't tell their Chinese stories, people overseas started to tell untrue Chinese stories, even fake stories. First impressions are strongest, that's universal. It will take much more effort for a true story to catch up with a fake one." 

Chinese governments should tell the public our plan, our progress, our achievements. We should let the public know the difficulties we face and how we are solving them. We should present a transparent government. Public supervision and advice can help the government go in the right direction. The public can understand hardships and support the government in dealing with them. That's why the government spokesperson system is significant both at home and abroad. Our spokespersons have made progress. We also answer journalists' questions to explain or clarify things. The more critical the questions are, the more press conferences we will hold to tell the world the truth, Zhao said.

Facing weaknesses

Zhao emphasized that reporting the real China doesn't mean we should describe China as perfect without saying a word about our weaknesses. "People will feel it is too good to be true."

"If you look at the 18th and 19th report of our National Party Congress and the annual report of the government's work, there is one part about our problems. The central government is setting an example for us to face our shortcomings. In environmental protection, we're making efforts to solve pollution and improve air quality. For the gap between rich and poor, we're reallocating capital resources and supporting backward areas. Where there is corruption, we fight against it."

"You can't report that our air is not polluted, or the wealth gap is not a serious problem. If we insist on saying that, of course people will not have enough trust in us. So we must talk about the real China. We should also talk about our weaknesses, be clear, and explain how we're going to overcome them. I think this is a long-term task for Chinese media."

Zhao has been the dean of School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China since 2006.
Newspaper headline: Telling the China story

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