There are a lot of smart people in China...

... but not many of them seem to work for the state propaganda apparatus.

I know there is constant Western talk about the cunning Chinese image-manipulation machine and how slyly it is currying favor worldwide. The concept in American minds seems to be of an information campaign guided by the spirit of the old commissar Zhou Enlai. Westerners found it so charming that Zhou could make jokes in French that they tended to forget that he was about as tender-hearted as Mao himself. And now -- ah, the clever Chinese are pulling it off again!

if you're actually exposed to the info-machine day by day, the image that occurs is not the suave Zhou but instead Scott McClellan, flop-sweating his way through an agonizing White House press conference.

For instance: Western reporters (like all Westerners) lead charmed lives in China, compared with Chinese journalists or activists, since about the worst thing that can happen to a Western reporter is that he or she will have to leave. But among the several millions Westerners now living in China, the ones who have the worst hassles and most frequent headaches -- over visas, questioning by officials, etc -- are reporters, the ones with greatest influence over how China is perceived world wide! Describe to me the cunning PR genius who says: the people who write about us every day, they're the ones we're going to make uncomfortable.

I should say that I'm not speaking personally: I had initial visa problems but no run-ins with authorities since then. But the story is different for daily newspaper reporters. Even in my case, the most impressive and winning aspects of China -- a place and people I generally like -- are the non-scripted ones. The "official" reassurances about one happy Chinese people looking bravely to the future under the Party's steadfast guidance are, umm, less effective.

The whole saga is for another time, but here is today's illustration: official sources have been trying to claim recently that the worldwide press is happy with the government's current level of openness. The worldwide press generally disagrees. So this evening CNN International carried a story on the dispute. And just as the anchor began to say, "International complaints about media access in China have continued. From Beijing..." the screen went blank. Two minutes of white-noise on the screen, then the signal returning when it was time for the weather report.

Clever! Wily, even. And no one would possibly notice! Far more effective in damping down complaints about press controls than actually showing the report would have been. America has problems in getting its image across these days, but it's not the only one.