How do Chinese spokespersons of MFA answer questions?

How do Chinese spokespersons of MFA answer questions?

Organisation: The Beijing News (China)

Publication Date: 04/01/2017

Size of team/newsroom:small


As an influential stakeholder of international politics, China’s foreign policy draws attention of media all over the world. Among all kinds of foreign affairs, which issues are most intriguing for reporters when they seeking official response from China? Spokespersons of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) are best trained and most professional among spokespersons of all departments in Chinese central government. They therefore received more questions than others. How do they answer those tough and sensitive questions? This project tries to find answers to these two questions above. The whole project contains three parts: 1. Questions from reporters; 2. How spokespersons respond; 3. Question frequency and labor division of 4 spokespersons. In the first part, we collected all questions proposed by reporters to spokespersons in 2016, which are recorded on the official website of MFA. According to the current situation faced by Chinese government, all those 1700 questions are put into 7 categories: bilateral diplomacy, world and regional hot topics, territorial controversy, multilateral diplomacy, domestic affairs, Tai Wan issue, Chinese overseas. As for bilateral diplomacy, data shows that Sino-US relation drew most attention. The nuclear development in North Korea was the most mentioned issue when asking questions about world or regional hop topics. We found that South China Sea had surpassed Diao Yu island and became reporters’ favorite question in the category of territorial controversy. In the second part, all answers to those 1700 questions are collected and analyzed. Content analysis showed that answers differed according to specific issues but we figured out some patterns. That is why this part focused on several phrases, which were frequently used by spokespersons and could clearly express the intent in responses. There are five phrases to demonstrate negative or unsatisfactory attitude: “protest”, “strongly oppose”, “raise solemn representation”, “condemn” and “firmly oppose”. “Firmly oppose” were used most last year. In Chinese language, this word is apparently not as intense as “protest” or “strongly oppose”. However, those harsh words were not randomly used in any cases. Taking the word “condemn” for example, it was used 41 times and 37 of them were used to respond to questions about terrorism related questions. Two “strongly opposed” were used in answering questions concerning Dalai Lama’s meeting with foreign leaders. When asked for opinion to some statement about China South Sea issue from other countries, spokesperson inclined to use “(the statements) have an ulterior motive”. For those “unwelcome” questions, spokespersons may use the phrases “this is (entirely) China’s internal affairs” which were used 37 times last year. In the third part, the number of questions in every month is counted. There are four spokespersons in MFA, and data shows that Chunying Hua, the only spokeswoman, took more work load than other three.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

Every March, National People's Congress holds meeting in Beijing, which is one of the most important political report for Chinese media. During the congress meeting, a press conference holds by the foreign minister draws a great deal of attention. As a daily newspaper, the Beijing News published articles of the conference as we did every year before. This year, we wanted to do something different. So, in addition to telling what the minister said at the conference, we intent to show what the Ministry had said all the year. In the first part, we would like to draw a Chinese diplomacy “map” for our readers. The map is constructed by keywords in reporters’ questions. All these years’ experience as reporters tells us that questions come not out of nowhere and must be closely related to respondent’s interests. In this case, it is China’s national interest in diplomatic affairs. When all questions were categorized, counted and showed in an interactive chart, readers could easily recognize which countries and issues play more important roles in China’s diplomacy by reading the numbers, colors and size of different colors on the chart. Although the personal charisma of this foreign minister gave media more topic when reporting the once-a-year press conference, our content and data analysis indicated that what he said were not much different from his colleague’s remark on regular press conference. It is known for some Chinese readers that spokespersons incline to use rhetoric phrases when responding to sensitive questions or avoid giving details, and someone may call them cliché. Instead of a commentary, this project is a news report. We don’t judge spokespersons’ work but use data to show how those so called rhetoric phrases are used. As far as we know, this is the first time remarks of MFA spokespersons are under through data analysis in Chinese media.

Technologies used for this project:

All the questions and answers were collected by an online crawler. However, categorization and counting were finished by hand calculation. Interactive charts and graphics are programmed in JavaScript language with the help of Echarts, an online tool helping people who are not good at encoding to produce interactive graphic on their website.
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