Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why 铁道部新闻发言人王勇平被免职 is wrong

According to 人民网北京816 据新网英文(微博)消息,中国道部816日表示,道部新闻发言人王勇平被免

I think 王勇平 got a bad deal.  The moral of the story is that the Chinese society (the public and officials), as a whole, needs to get more sophisticated dealing with the flow of information.

What王勇平 did is clear, as he gave the first press conference one day after the “7.23”甬温线动车事故.  At the time, understandably, the public was anxious to learn more about the accident, like the cause and casualties.  Understandably, much of the information was incomplete or not available at the time, there was a lot of confusion, and the situation was still evolving.  This is the background we need to remember.   On behalf of 道部, 王勇平apologized, promised to help the victims, and promised to investigate and to do a better job later.  He said whatever he knew at the time and more (below).  Most importantly, looking back three weeks later, what he said turned out to be the closest to the truth, compared to the so many rumors and confusion at the time.

The controversy stemmed from the fact he said “至于你信不信,我反正信了” and “只能是生命的奇迹”.  Let’s analyze the contexts. 
至于你信不信,我反正信了” was in a response to a question about 体被地掩埋, 是不是了掩盖.   当听到这样, 王勇平生如此愚蠢的问题? 这么举世都知道的事故淹没的了?”  (someone more knowledgeable) 我,不是想掩埋,事个事情是无法掩埋的,王勇平要掩埋,他们给出了这样的解现场抢险的情况, 境非常复杂,下面是一个泥塘,施展来很不方便,其他的理,所以他车头埋在下面,盖上土,主要是便于抢险。他们给出的解这样,至于你信不信,我反正是信的。

From what is accepted now and supported by real evidence, there was no such thing as “or车头被掩埋, 掩盖”.  The problem started with the question, which is akin to asking “why did you beat your wife”.  王勇平 made a mistake by agreeing to or assuming “车头埋在下面,盖上土”.  While it is true that 车头 and 其他的 were moved at the time, they were never 掩埋 by a common sense.   The underlying meaning of his answer, which was about why they moved the车头, is certainly more believable than掩盖.  In short, 王勇平信的是.

只能是生命的奇迹”was in response to the question何救援宣告束后仍发现一名生儿童.  Again, the problem started with the question, like asking “why did you beat your wife”.  There was some confusion about 救援宣告in the morning of 7/24.  There was never any official declaration of 救援.  Some people appeared to believe that they had done all they would, with their overnight search and the equipment they had, which was understandable but did not by itself mean the whole rescue effort was over.  All reports indicated that the rescue of the girl on the bridge was possible only after better equipment was brought in later.  王勇平 was not familiar with the details and unprepared for this question, especially since the child was rescued only a few hours earlier, so he seemed to simply borrow a common phrase like “生命的奇迹”.  People used it a lot when they found any survivor 5 days after an earthquake.  With a clear mind, one can say every survival is a miracle, more so if you are in a terrible accident, are squeezed in a tiny space in a hot summer day, and everyone around you is dead.

I have watched many press conferences and seen many evasive or patently wrong answers from high and low level officials.  What王勇平 did was actually passable under a difficult situation (honest and eventually correct most of the time), although imperfect.  The main problem is that he tried to befriend everybody by bowing and using folk languages like “至于你信不信,我反正信了” and “只能是生命的奇迹”, to the point that it almost seemed insincere. On one hand the common people could see an official trying to be like just one of them.  On the other hand, they could view this as a sign that the government was not in control or was hiding something; with the emotion running high then, this would be a more probable outcome.  

So what could have been done better?  The reporters first should do their homework better by asking questions that were more precise and supported by real evidence.  王勇平 should also do his homework better, think about the questions before answering, and say what he needed to say, nothing more or less.  Like “至于你信不信,我反正信了” is not helpful.     

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