Public Relations Education in the People's Republic of China

Article excerpt

Public relations was introduced into China after political and economic changes in the late 1970s paved the way for this western concept and profession.(1) Since then, public relations as an occupation has rapidly spread. Chinese officials claim that about 100,000 practitioners now work in almost all sectors of society. (Since the definition of public relations remains vague, and there is no licensing of practitioners, estimates of the number of workers in the field are tentative.) Universities are offering public relations curricula, and public relations firms and agencies--some foreign--have opened.(2)

Trained personnel are initially bound to be in short supply in any new field. The structure, curricula, and problems of education and professional training greatly affect the quality and stature of an emerging profession. The Chinese welcome assistance from western public relations educators and professionals in their efforts to develop and implement educational and training programs.

How can westerners work with Chinese educators and officials? What are the implications of cultural and class differences? This paper addresses these questions, and offers some implications for public relations education as it exists both in the West and in developing countries.

Historical precedents

Although the term "public relations" is relatively new in China, the practice can be traced over more than 2,000 years of Chinese history, encompassing 13 dynasties and the People's Republic of China. The rise and fall of these dynasties has illustrated the importance of recognizing the "harmony" concept--the establishment and maintenance of a harmonious relationship between the ruler and the subjects on whom his success or failure depended. Emperors viewed their subjects as water which could carry the imperial boat but also turn it over. Thus, all rulers emphasized relationship building, hence, public relations.

For instance, an emperor went to the "Temple of Heaven" on New Year's eve to report to Heaven how he exercised his power benevolently and helped his subjects during the year. News about the report was sent to the people to gain their support and understanding.

The former leader of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong, disciplined his army by the famous Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. The three main rules are: (a) obey orders in all your actions; (b) don't take a single needle or piece of thread from the masses; and (c) turn in everything captured. The eight points are: (a) speak politely; (b) pay fairly for what you buy; (c) return everything you borrow; (d) pay for everything you damage; (e) don't hit or swear at people; (f) don't damage crops; (g) don't take liberties with women; and (h) don't ill-treat captives.(3) These rigid rules were made known to every household, which in turn, helped the army and party establish a very distinguished and positive image.

Confucianism, China's traditional philosophy and guiding regulatory system for social affairs, emphasizes li--adherence to propriety and respect for social order-which requires all people to follow accepted rituals in relating to others. This stratifies society into a hierarchy of power. To reduce the conflicts created by this social estate system, Confucius calls for harmony, which is a way to smooth relationships.

Evolution of a new field

Despite the long history of its practice, public relations is still new as an occupation in China. Confusion about the nature, goals, roles, and functions of public relations has been observed since its introduction in the early 1980s. At first, people tended to define public relations as a publicity function. Now, more people, especially managers, think of public relations as a management-counseling function.(4)

The structure of public relations practice and education in China has evolved through several stages, resulting in an educational system with many levels of training. …