The 2013 Fortune Global Forum has come and gone and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I didn’t notice a thing. Except maybe the shockingly good weather. The good news that Chengdu would be hosting the Forum popped up on my cell phone as one of the countless spam text messages that I delete without a thought, and I did see the ubiquitous “Panda at the Podium” promo on billboards scattered around the city, but that was it.
Mainstream Western media was too busy covering the Snowden Revelations, the Game of Thrones Finale, The Block, and of course Michelle’s (calculated?) snub of Peng Liyuan to pay attention to what – if you too were reading the shrill China Daily reports that have been clogging my “Chengdu” Google Alert feed since last November – was without question the biggest coming out party for the most important economic engine in the world:
The Green City everyone has been trying to build but failed at …
A Whimper and a Peep
In fact, unless you had backstage passes to the secret Halls of Power where the future is decided amidst piles of shrimp casings and cigar-leavings, the 2013 Forum pretty much came in with a whimper and left with a peep. Bits and pieces of that banquet came out via WSJ’s Richard Fisk and others, who are reporting from but not necessarily about Chengdu, and for those of you who subscribe to Fortune (as I do), exclusive video footage of the halls outside the Halls will be available on June 18th. Can’t wait.
There were a lot of stories posted out of Chengdu during this period, such as Hank Paulson’s banal statements, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s banal statments and Tony Blair’s banal statements. I missed the incredible concert featuring Richard Marx and Friends, but thankfully read this story which made me cock my head and say, “what do you mean, precisely, by ‘bad zip codes’?” and other inconsequential rubbish that makes the web such a great dumpster diving experience.
But few that have Chengdu at the center of the story, which is what hosting this event is all about, right?
Perhaps the biggest slightly-Chengdu centric news to come out of the conference was Katzenberg’s announcement that Dreamworks and Wanda will work together on Kungfu Panda 4-X, with some of that perhaps-maybe-but-not-really-sure-yet being filmed in Chengdu, Hometown of Pandas. Another “big story” was the revelation that China and North Korea are not as dissimilar as Chinese would like to believe.
Which brings me to my theory as to why this event, supposedly one of the biggest in the city’s history, made about as big a splash as a bony Chinese girl doing a cannonball into the Orchard Villa shallow end.
Control vs Incompetence = No One Wins
Social media was a big component of the city’s push to to promote the Forum, but despite the fact that the city has entire offices with access to Twitter and Facebook, which they graciously allowed foreign reporters to enjoy as well, I didn’t see much on Twitter, except for the usual suspect @Chengdu_China. The city’s Youtube page has just under 3 million views, which is pretty impressive, but just 719 subscribers, and nothing seems to load right on that page anyway. And the Facebook page, as I am well aware, has thousands of followers with little or no clue about Chengdu’s economy and even less of an interest.
This is a metric I have grown accustomed to when dealing with Chengdu’s official PR campaigns. For the past year it was my job at Gochengdu.cn to promote the Forum to the outside world through the web. The office I worked in spent millions of RMB creating sites and social media accounts, soliciting campaign ideas from the best and brightest in international PR, and buying space in any damn media outlet they could.
The social media campaigns were run by people with little to no idea about the culture of foreign social media platforms. So despite spending millions of RMB promoting the accounts, the website, and buying Google Ads etc, none of the above Chengdu-centric platforms have any significant presence. Contrast that with the official Chinese-language Chengdu Weibo blog/account: Wechengdu.com, which has thousands of active followers.
The Chinese media were most receptive to cash for content schemes, and the “Free” Western Media also finds it hard to pass up a free trip to Chengdu to snoop around. But Western readers – and increasingly Chinese viewers as well – can distinguish PR driven butt-kissing stories from the real deal. So, again, despite millions in RMB spent on Chinese and foreign media outlets, the message that “Chengdu Can Do” came off awkwardly contrived. Another example of well-meaning PR going awry due to cultural illiteracy.
However, the problem is not that the media gorged itself on cash and puked out a stream of mediocrity, or that the sites and campaigns the city paid so much for looked like they came out of Qbert’s ass. No, all that could have been overcome with a bit of ingenuity and great leadership.
Nope, the real problem is the inescapable iron grip of the Faceless Boss on each and everyone’s mind.
Any attempt to do something is met with “the leaders may not like it” and then the reset button is hit … again … and everything goes back to square one. The actual worker bees – most of them highly qualified, intelligent young people fully aware that the its 2013 out there – operate in a system stifled by fear, greed, and byzantine hierarchies and fiefdoms. They spend eight hours a day in a system that encourages hard working people to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, while fostering laziness, incompetence and a blanket of indifference that chokes the life out of everything. Everyone in the Chengdu PR office knows that butt kissing stories make no dent, but until the Faceless Boss can detach himself from a system run by fear and oppression, butts will continue to be smooched.
Don’t Look Behind The Curtain
There is no wall within the minds of Chinese PR people that prevents them from realizing that the truth has a greater impact that doublespeak. But there is definitely a wall there to keep people from acting upon their realizations.
Chengdu had to add a few bricks to the wall during the Forum, because protests against PX chemical factories and the looming spectre of this time of the year gave everyone the jitters. Instead of staging the event at the massive Century City Exhibition Center down south, the city moved everything to the private confines of the Shangri-La Hotel. Not having finished the Global Center in time for the event definitely factored into the decision to cordone off the Shangri-la Hotel and Kuan Xiangzi – where the bigwigs strolled and ate at Kuan Zuo, the government go-to for any visitor to the city. Chengdu did whatever it could to keep normal citizen far, far away from whatever it was that the Fortunates of the world discussed.
This article, by famous local principal Li Zhen Xi, describes how police prevented him from running his daily route, while allowing staged taiji practices to go on for the benefit of visiting laowai:
“I wanted to force my way through, I wanted to tell the officer: I am also doing my morning exercises, how dare you prevent me from passing. What law allows you to take away my freedoms? Present your authorization!’ But I didn’t force my way, I didn’t say a word, because I knew I wasn’t confronting a police officer, but a theoretical representation of my mighty government.”
So not only was the Internet impact of the event muted by poor social media work, bad websites, and overall incompetence (who ran that Gochengdu.cn site anyway??), but the city’s paranoia led to a sealed off event with, if anything, a negative impact on the city..
Too bad. I was really rooting for the city to get that big cover story somewhere, that great long-form piece in a great mag (Ted, where are you?), the piece that would tell the ups and downs and dreams of a town on the cusp of something.
Let me sift through my stuff and see if I have one here somewhere.