Tea Leaf Nation
Sound, Fury, and Hot Air
China’s annual legislative meeting becomes a vapid media circus.
HONG KONG — If a Martian had landed in the Chinese capital of Beijing in early March, he might wrongly conclude that China’s fourth estate is an energetic and hard-hitting bunch busy keeping the country’s officials on their toes and pulling back the curtain on China’s highest legislative power. He would hear plenty of war stories, passed down from year to year, of provincial heads or ministers being cornered in bathrooms or elevators by extra-inquisitive journalists. He would see high-level government officials and representatives harried and exasperated by aggressive camera-and-recorder wielding reporters before the Great Hall of the People, the legislative building on the edge of Tiananmen Square.
The Two Sessions — the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislative body, and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political consultation body — drew to a close on March 13. For the past few years, the Two Sessions have been a carnival for reporters in China, especially those employed by China’s normally docile state-owned media, who get to flex their journalistic muscles, deck out in their Sunday best (and maybe don a pair of Google Glass), and chase down a high-level minister or two, even if they are operating in an environment ultimately controlled by Communist Party authorities.
This year’s Two Sessions were overshadowed by back-to-back tragedies: A knife attack in Kunming that claimed 29 lives and injured more than 140 on March 1, and the March 8 disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines airplane that carried 153 Chinese nationals. Both incidents took public attention away from the Two Sessions and refocused the national conversation around public safety and terrorism.
Some representatives of the CPPCC, like Hong Kong kung-fu film star Jackie Chan, ex-NBA player Yao Ming, Nobel laureate Mo Yan, and other assorted performers and television personalities who comprise the CPPCC ranks, are celebrities in their own right, and used to legions of large cameras and pushy reporters. But government officials have had to learn to put on their game faces. At the 2010 Two Sessions, a provincial governor was so aggravated by a reporter’s line of questioning that he forcibly grabbed her voice recorder, landing him in the doghouse of public opinion. Li was still promoted by the party two years later, but other officials have been careful to avoid losing their cool.
This year, the party boss of the western region of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, was besieged by dozens of journalists on March 6 after alleged separatists from Xinjiang carried out the terrorist attack in Kunming. Online videos show security guards helping Zhang slip away from rancorous reporters. One Taiwanese newspaper described the scene as a "riot." Zhang wore a smile even when reporters shoved microphones in his face and asked him sensitive questions about ethnic relations in Xinjiang.
Mayor Yuan Baocheng of the southern city Dongguan, the "sex capital of China," was also given the paparazzi treatment when dozens of reporters asked him about central authorities’ recent high-profile crackdown on prostitution rings on his turf, and the suspected complicity of local police and government officials in allowing the industry to thrive. Yuan maintained an awkward grin and repeatedly said, "Thank you. You reporters work too hard," but did not answer any of their questions.
So what came of all the Chinese journalists’ hard work? Rather insipid stuff. Top stories from the Two Sessions included discussions about the supposedly meager salaries of China’s civil servants and the fact that China’s top corruption czar, Wang Qishan, admitted to watching soapy Korean miniseries from time to time.
Foreign correspondents have not fared better in this year’s Two Sessions. In 2012, a Reuters correspondent asked then-Premier Wen Jiabao about Bo Xilai, the powerful party boss of Chongqing, prompting a surprising answer from Wen that foreshadowed Bo’s fall from grace only days later. By contrast, at this year’s Two Sessions, foreign journalists complied with a request from the Chinese propaganda department to refrain from asking Prime Minister Li Keqiang about the Kunming attack, tensions in the western region of Tibet, or Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief who is widely suspected to be under investigation for corruption. Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reports that the foreign correspondents were under threat of being "blacklisted" in future events had they stepped out of line.
It’s not surprising that the Two Sessions have become mere infotainment, instead of the genuine leadership powwow they purport to be. The NPC, after all, is frequently called a "rubber stamp" legislature, while the CPPCC is known among some as mere "window dressing." It’s likely the media spectacle of the Two Sessions will remain just that: plenty of sound and fury for two weeks, ultimately signifying nothing.