China cancels press conference, closing a small window for its people

For more than 30 years, the Chinese premier’s annual news conference was the only time a senior leader took questions from journalists about the state of the country. It was the only occasion for the public to evaluate China’s No. 2 official for themselves. It was the only moment when some Chinese could feel a slight sense of political participation in a country without elections.

On Monday, China announced that the prime minister’s press conference, which marks the end of the country’s annual legislature, will no longer be held. With that move, an important institution of China’s reform era ceased to exist.

“Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” wrote one commentator on the social media platform Weibo, reflecting the sentiment that China is becoming more like its dictatorial, hermit-like neighbor. The search term “press conference” was censored on Weibo, and by Monday afternoon Beijing time, very few comments remained.

Although increasingly scheduled, the prime minister’s press conference at the National People’s Congress was watched by the Chinese public and the world’s political and business elite for signs of economic policy shifts and, occasionally, power plays. high-level events taking place beneath the surface.

“As organized as it was, it was a window into how official China works and how official China explains itself to the Chinese people and the world at large,” said Charles Hutzler, a former colleague of mine who attended 24 conferences. prime ministers press. since 1988 as a journalist for Voice of America, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal.

The decision to eliminate the press conference reflects the dire economic conditions facing China and the growing tendency of leaders to put the country in a black box. And therein lies the obvious conclusion: Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, is the only one in charge of a country of 1.4 billion people.

The disappearance of the press conference also erased the last vestiges of the reform era.

In the 1990s and 2000s, China had two major television events each year: the annual Lunar New Year television gala and the annual press conference with the prime minister. (Think of the Super Bowl and the Oscars in the United States, and even more so because China had few television channels and the Internet was new.)

The first memorable television political moment for many Chinese was in November 1987. Outgoing Premier Zhao Ziyang mingled with foreign correspondents at a reception at the end of the Communist Party Congress. Chatty and smiling, he answered questions: Was there a power struggle within the party between the reformists and the conservatives? Was there freedom in China? Where was his elegant double-breasted suit made? Mr. Zhao, who was elected general secretary of the party at the congress, even hinted: “Personally, I think I am more suitable for the position of prime minister. But everyone wanted me to be general secretary.”

Such a public statement by a Chinese official would be unthinkable today.

Mr. Zhao was later fired for opposing the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. He died while under house arrest. The transcription and video from the reception show that he dodged the questions, except the one about his suit. (The suit came from a Beijing tailor shop called Hongdu, or Red Capital.)

The press conference with the prime minister was institutionalized in 1993, but it did not become a must-see television event until Zhu Rongji, a sharp-tongued and good-humored prime minister, took the stage in 1998. Expressing his determination to be a good prime minister Minister, He declared: “It doesn’t matter if what we have before us is a minefield or a bottomless abyss, I will continue forward without hesitation.”

That event was so popular that two people involved in it rose to national prominence: a journalist from a Hong Kong television station who asked a question, and a Foreign Ministry staffer who interpreted for him in English.

Zhu’s successor, Wen Jiabao, didn’t make major news at his press conferences until his last one, in 2012. Later, he talked about China’s need for political reform (about the last time a senior Chinese leader mentioned it) and foreshadowed the fall of Bo Xilai, a political rival of Xi.

Li Keqiang, who was prime minister under Xi for a decade and was sidelined by his domineering boss for much of that time, scored a point for transparency in 2020 when he said that some 600 million Chinese, or 43 percent, of the population, earned a monthly income of approximately only $140. His comments cast doubt on Xi’s claim that China was defeating poverty. When Mr. Li died unexpectedly last October, many Chinese went online to thank him for telling the truth.

For the most part, the prime ministers used the venue to answer questions from international media and discuss economic and foreign policy. According to a 2013 article in a state-backed publication, at the first press conferences held by Zhu, Wen and Li each answered nearly half of the questions from foreign media outlets.

The prime minister’s press conferences, attended by up to 700 journalists each year, were originally intended to provide interview opportunities for foreign media, allowing them to better understand China, according to the article.

Under Xi, the Chinese government expelled and harassed foreign journalists, raided offices of multinational companies and waded into disputes with major trading partners. Closing the press conference will make China more isolated and less transparent to the outside world. That doesn’t bode well for the economy.

One possible reason for the cancellation is that China faces its most serious economic challenges in decades. But the country has gone through difficult periods before, including the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the global financial crisis of 2008. Prime ministers then had no problems communicating the country’s policies to the public and the world.

The question is to what extent China, under Xi’s leadership, values ​​open communication. Censorship in the media and on the Internet is the harshest in decades.

Many China watchers speculated that the death of the press conference could be an attempt at self-preservation by current Premier Li Qiang. Li was Xi’s chief of staff in eastern Zhejiang province in the 2000s and owes his position to him.

Since taking office last March, Li has downplayed the importance and influence of his position. He flew charter flights rather than the equivalent of Air Force One to which he is entitled, making Mr Xi the only one to enjoy that status. He reduced the frequency of meetings of the Chinese cabinet, which is chaired by the prime minister, from weekly to a couple of times a month. His portraits do not appear on the cabinet’s website. They also did not appear on major news portals on Tuesday when he delivered the government work report, an annual rite for the prime minister. As usual, headlines and portraits of Xi dominated those sites.

Mr Li canceled his press conference, according to one commentator. wrote in X, probably not because he lacks eloquence. “It was probably because Li Qiang felt that he would become the center of media attention at the press conference, overshadowing the brilliance of the Secretary-General,” the commentator wrote, referring to Mr. Xi. “He hopes to remain forever the shadow of the Secretary General.”