We’re going to make a somewhat bold assessment: If the People’s Republic of China weren’t a one-party country, the ruling Communist bureaucracy’s PR efforts would not be particularly effective. Party spokesmen (and they’re always men) have no discernible sense of humor, and they aren’t too skilled in the art of nuance–their public proclamations have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

An interesting study in Communist Party PR unfurled this week. For the past year or so, Chinese politics has revolved around the sort of organized transfer of power that occurs once every decade; most observers believe that current President Hu Jintao will hand the reins off to his VP, Xi Jinping.

The transfer, already plagued by the arrest of top official Bo Xilal and his wife on charges of fraud and murder, ran into even more controversy thanks to a recent New York Times expose focused on the finances of prime minister Wen Jibao‘s family–a proudly humble clan that has somehow managed to accumulate billions of dollars in assets over recent years via assorted business alliances.

Like the Wen family’s finances, the Party’s damage control plan is all over the map: First censors blocked web access to the Times site throughout China; then they scanned the popular Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo in order to scrub all references to the number 2.7 billion (the supposed financial worth of the PM’s family). After relying on the government to implement a “nothing to see here” approach, members of the Wen family pivoted, directly addressing a story that they’d previously tried to erase and threatening legal action against the Times for reporting on “corporate and regulatory records” that were available to the public. What’s more, the family never directly addressed any of the story’s particulars–and the Times report did not allege any sort of illegal activity.

This completely ineffective response to the scandal hints at the complexity of Chinese politics: in an unelected government, public perception is invaluable because brute force can only accomplish so much.

Read more