China Power

What It’s Like to Attend a CCP Press Conference

What it’s really like to attend the Chinese premier’s annual press conference at the National People’s Congress.

Yang Hengjun
What It’s Like to Attend a CCP Press Conference
Credit: Yang Hengjun

I rarely get up that early, let alone on such a cold day in Beijing. But on March 16, I got my wake-up call at 5:30 in the morning. Afterwards, I hurriedly got into the car waiting for me and was whisked off to the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. I was to attend Premier Li Keqiang’s annual press conference.

Although the conference would start at 10 am, I’d heard that journalists would start lining up at 5:30. Sure enough, when I arrived at 6:30, there were already dozens of Chinese and foreign journalists lined up outside. Half an hour later, there were more than 100 people in line behind us. When the door opened and we were permitted inside, the journalists scrambled to rush into the “Golden Hall” on the third floor, where we took our seats to wait for Li to answer our questions.

Generally, the seats at a press conference are important for letting journalists be seen by the speaker on the platform. A better seat means you’re more likely to be called on and will have more opportunities to ask questions. But here, even if you’re sitting the front row it won’t help boost your opportunity for asking a question. That much is obvious by watching how easily the presenter called on journalists from Europe, the U.S., Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinhua, People’s Daily, and CCTV – and called them all by name.

So why do journalists stake out seats? Except for a few photographers who want a good vantage point, most of these journalists want to be seen in the camera shots. Cameras won’t focus on the premier himself for all of the nearly two-hour live broadcast. There are many opportunities for journalists in the audience to get on camera and most journalists won’t pass up that opportunity. A few years ago, a female journalist became popular after changing into a colorful outfit at the press conference. I have to admit, I also changed clothes halfway through – because the air conditioning was turned down too low.

One other thing worth mentioning about the line to get in: When the time came to open the door, a large group of people wearing press badges began to walk over from the side. They didn’t need to wait in line, but just swaggered into the hall. Later I learned that these were the journalists from CCTV, Xinhua and other big, official media outlets. When the rest of us finally rushed into the Golden Hall, we discovered that many seats were already occupied. There were also some seats marked “reserved”; most of the people given these seats were later called on to talk.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

At the beginning of the press conference, I raised my hand twice, but later I stopped trying. I started to look around at the magnificent Golden Hall and the pretty female journalists in the audience. Finally I lowered my head, opened up my call phone and started tweeting. But don’t worry, I still heard the premier’s answers to journalists’ questions.

Some points of Li’s speech attracted my attention, especially his answers to separate questions about Ukraine, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. When answering the question about Hong Kong, Li emphasized the self-rule of Hong Kong and its “high degree of autonomy.” It seems there hasn’t been much emphasis on those two points lately; they hadn’t been mentioned at several other occasions. As for the questions about Ukraine, Li emphasized China’s consistent diplomatic policies and clarified the rumors that China was “taking sides” on the problem of Ukraine and the neighboring countries. Li told the international community that the only “side” China is on is the “side” of its own diplomatic policies.

Premier Li Keqiang encouraged online stores, extolled express deliveries and mentioned the Internet economy. He also admitted that recently he had bought several books online, but he said he couldn’t mention their titles for fear of being accused of advertising. Premier Li, you must have bought my books – be bold and say so!

In such an important press conference, you might think it’s veering off-topic to have two questions on books and reading. But reading is very important to the future of a nation. A country shouldn’t focus only on money and development, but also on culture and values. If I’d had the chance to ask a question, I would have asked:  does the government have short-term, medium-term and long-term plans for practicing the socialist core values, especially the rule of law, freedom and democracy? Of course, I didn’t get the chance to ask.

The questions that I collected from the Internet popped up endless on my mobile phone, questions of all kinds. These questions were far more interesting than those asked by the silly journalists covering the “two sessions.”

Li emphasized “streamlining administration and delegating power to the lower levels.” He also talked about the problem of cadres going from “acting up” to “not acting,” which I wrote about earlier. He encouraged entrepreneurship and said that “the experts are among the people.” Wow! Does that mean the experts were sitting in the audience, not on the stage?

A foreign reporter asked about the responsibility China’s two state-owned oil giants bear for environmental pollution, as well as the public reaction and the government’s policies. Li’s answer was full of talk about the government’s resolution and countermeasures in its “war on pollution.” His answer avoided the question while still talking about an issue that everyone is concerned about. Looks like the “expert” is on stage after all, not among us.

Li mentioned people’s livelihood, development and deepening reform many times. One point that attracted attention (and even tears) was when Li spoke about “misleading exaggerations” regarding China’s economy. Li noted that, based on international standards, there are still 200 million people living in poverty in China. He spoke about his encounters with poor families, and had a solemn expression as he talked about the unbearable living conditions that they face. This marked the longest pause in the whole conference – maybe he was actually moved.

When the press conference was about half over, I got a ton of congratulatory messages from netizens and friends with a screenshot of me on TV. But I noticed that the camera responsible for our section passed over me more than 10 times, neglecting my row. Was it because the female journalists around me weren’t pretty enough or because they were all playing on their phones?

When the press conference was ending, two female journalists in the audience yelled out Li’s name and pushed forward to ask an extra question. Their question, on the China-Myanmar border issue, was bold. Li turned his head and answered solemnly, saying that China has the determination and the ability to defend its own territory and the lives of Chinese citizens. This reply earned applause from some journalists. After Li left, many journalists rushed onto the stage to take photos with his name card. One female journalist sat in Li’s seat to be photographed for five whole minutes.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

I stuck it out till the end — from half past six in the morning to noon. Then I rushed out of the Great Hall of the People and into the nearest fast-food restaurant.

Some look at their birthday as the marker of another year gone by, or New Year’s Day or the Spring Festival. But for many journalists, the interview scrum of the “two sessions” is the most important event of the year. I heard a journalist sigh with emotion after the press conference: “Oh, another year gone by…”

Yes, from a journalist’s perspective, it’s a big event. How many interview opportunities like this will you get in your life? What kind of questions can you ask with this chance?

But for ordinary Chinese, what’s the meaning of this sort of meeting? Will it have any impact on our lives, our work, or our future? That was the question I was pondering throughout my time in the Golden Hall.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.