Liu Xuan, Deputy Director of the Information Office of the Tibet regional government, discusses how the local government regards this issue and how it will respond to the new openness in an interview with Beijing Review reporter Feng Jianhua.
Beijing Review: Information inaccessibility is believed to be a significant impediment to Tibet's development. Would you tell us how the problem is being addressed?
Liu Xuan: With an average altitude above 4,000 meters and an area of 1.22 million square km, Tibet has long been an underdeveloped region due to its inconvenient transportation. Its inaccessibility to information and ensuing close-mindedness of local people have long hindered the region's development. It used to take half a month for a letter from inland to be delivered in Tibet. But nowadays transportation has been improved and every village has access to television. Consequently, the local people's mindset has also undergone a great change. For example, I went to Nagqu in north Tibet and found that the herdsmen near the railway had vigorously engaged in the hospitality business. So the expanding of information channels has been a great help to Tibet's development.
Before 2004, China had no regular government information release system. People at that time viewed the government's work as a mystery. Many important government decisions were not understood by the public because of the opacity of the decision-making process. Tibet had long been misunderstood because the information flow wasn't smooth, leaving the government sometimes in a passive position. Of course, the government also had itself to blame for conservative and inflexible working methods.
Tibet is real and transparent; there's nothing it hides from the outside world. A friend of mine who was brought up in Tibet once told me that it's unbelievable to see this place changing so fast. Today, Lhasa lacks nothing except a bit more oxygen. However, the knowledge of the outside world, and even inland China, about Tibet is too little and sometimes one-sided, which has something to do with information inaccessibility and the non-transparency of the government's work.
In recent years, the Tibet regional government has devoted itself to the openness of information and has made remarkable progress. The local government has held 51 news conferences since early 2004, 30 of which were in last year. They drew dozens of news media and about 20 reporters.
Which news conference has left the deepest impression on you?
A plague broke out on June 25, 2005, in a village in west Tibet and at four o'clock that afternoon the government was about to hold a news conference. I received an emergency phone call only one hour before the event. It's the first time in the history of Tibet that we had to prepare for a news conference in such a short time. The unexpected fatal epidemic would cause panic and instability if not handled properly. So there was a tense atmosphere in the meeting room where a crowd of reporters was waiting when I got there. As the spokeswoman, I answered most of the questions, including the sensitive topic of the number of deaths. The national TV broadcaster and other influential media immediately released reports based on the news conference. The rapid response helped the outside world understand the real situation in Tibet. Another example is the conferences on environmental protection. The outside world is concerned about the environment in Tibet and we hold a news conference on June 5 (World Environment Day) every year to deliver the latest information about the environmental situation in Tibet to the world.
What are the shortcomings of the spokesperson system in Tibet in your opinion?
As the system is still in its primary stage, we need to enhance training of our spokespersons. They have to be quick to respond to all questions. And the government's rapid response mechanism also needs to be perfected. In the face of an emergency, it's very important for the government to stand out and make its voice the first one heard. We are not doing so well on that aspect.
What will your office do to improve it?
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway will bring challenges to our government's work for new thoughts will flood in where people's thinking used to be shut off from the outside world. Therefore, we have to be more open-minded.
With the opening up of Tibet, the outside world has an increasing interest in this place, in its politics, economy and social affairs. In the past, the information outflow from Tibet was largely carried out by traditional media. With the Internet so prevalent, more people are resorting to the Web for information. But the construction of online information platforms is still backward here in Tibet with too few portals for people to turn to.
In many public emergencies the voice of the government is quite important to maintaining social stability. If the government wants to have its voice heard first, it should be open and tell the truth since we all know we are living in a world where the media are so strong that no happenings can escape their eyes.
We will also endeavor to perfect the spokesperson system and cultivate a stronger spokesperson team to adapt to the new reality.
What is your personal experience as a major proponent of the spokesperson system in Tibet?
I took this job in July 2004. At my first press conference, I was a little nervous because I was not so familiar with the procedures and was afraid of unexpected sharp questions from the reporters. Anyway, it turned out to be fine.
After spending some time on this post, I began to think about two things. The first one is to get more spokespersons used to this system, to get a better understanding of the relationship between government agencies and the news media. The other is to raise the requirement for reporters. I hope they can make good use of a news conference to provide a real picture of Tibet to the outside world. This is an interactive approach, and later I found the two sides worked together better than before.
As for myself, I have attempted to insert more human interest and less government jargon into my press conferences. I also do my best to help those who want to get in touch with the outside world through the channel of press conferences. Now the officials in Tibet have become more open and brave to face the cameras and reporters.
I feel both honor and a heavy responsibility on my shoulders to serve as a spokeswoman for Tibet. But as some government leaders still pay insufficient attention to this platform, I often find press conferences not so interactive or vibrant. I hope reporters can challenge the spokespersons and our spokespersons can handle their questions with more humor. However, such an occurrence is rare. I'm content with most of the 44 press conferences over which I've presided. We have some improvements to make in regard to the system, the mindset and the foresight. Tibet, as it is gradually approaching the outside world, will show its glamour and confidence based on its own development.