Western leaders’ stage-managed press conferences in China

By Stephen McDonell
BBC News, Beijing

image captionIn a recent visit to China by US Secretary of State John Kerry was a classic example of this phenomenon

Many correspondents here believe that major Western leaders are providing an increasingly bad example when it comes to speaking about their dealings with Beijing on their now frequent trips to China.

The Chinese government has been criticised for the stage-managed "press conferences" it holds during the annual National People's Congress.

Only questions which have been vetted are permitted and reporters are selected in a pre-ordained order to politely ask what they have already said they will ask.

Then a leader, like the Chinese premier, virtually reads out a prepared answer. Sometimes it's not even virtual.

As journalists who believe in the role of the Fourth Estate, we often say to Chinese officials that genuine press conferences with real questions and real answers would be much better in terms of allowing Beijing to get its messages out to the world, not to mention making governments and businesses here more accountable.

image captionMr Kerry took only two pre-selected questions

And yet when representatives of Western governments come to China, we are seeing a media conference model which appears even less accountable than the sessions provided by the Chinese Communist Party.

The offering during the recent visit by United States Secretary of State John Kerry was a classic example of this phenomenon.

Journalists were asked to be at a five-star hotel at 17.30 local time for a security check prior to the main event. Of course, we would expect nothing less than a full screening, and around 100 journalists turned up.

Mr Kerry had just completed talks with Chinese leaders over several days as part of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

There was much we could have asked about the current thinking of the world's top two powers: what had been said about military tensions in the South China Sea, the possibility of a trade war, allegations of Chinese steel dumping, Beijing's feelings towards ramped-up American military assets in the region, the crackdown on China's human rights lawyers.

Then, more than three hours after we arrived, the US Secretary of State walked onto stage and we were told there would be two questions.

It was hard to see this as anything but a pretence of a press conference.

A moderator announced that Reuters would go first. The reporter asked a question about China's new NGO laws.

The moderator then announced that the second and final question would come from China's CCTV. Secretary Kerry was asked for his response to Xi Jinping's opening remarks at the dialogue, at which the Chinese president said: "The Pacific Ocean should not become an arena for rivalry but a platform for inclusive co-operation."

image captionThe US State Department says journalists who travel with Mr Kerry understand the limited questions

State Department officials told us that the event had panned out like this because of the hectic nature of the schedule, but John Kerry was on stage in front of a large room full of journalists for 11-and-a-half minutes and could only manage to answer two questions.

A normal political press conference of that duration could potentially include many questions, given that some answers would be brief and to the point:"Yes, we raised human rights cases, including those of the following people. Next question".

Correspondents based in Beijing expressed their frustration with US officials along the lines that if the West expects the Chinese government to be more accountable, the so-called leaders of the free world really should be setting a better example when they visit here.

There have been other US government press conferences here along similar lines.

One held by US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, on the same night, was only marginally better. He answered four questions from pre-selected reporters.

image copyrightPA
image captionThe UK's chancellor of the exchequer avoided questions when he visited China's restive Xinjiang region

The BBC asked the US State Department if the journalists chosen to ask questions at these press conferences had, in this case, submitted these questions beforehand.

While not specifically responding yes or no, a spokesperson did say that normally priority is given to reporters who have come with the secretary from the US and that they "diplomatically determine amongst themselves which travelling reporter will ask questions and what are the topics". Then apparently a local reporter is also chosen to ask.

A spokesperson added that "the State Department Correspondents' Association and those who regularly travel with the Secretary are familiar with and are understanding of limited questions at press availabilities".

There have been times in China such as when the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne went to the tense Xinjiang region. There was a stage managed photo opportunity featuring him helping to load trucks at a factory loading dock. Frustrated reporters tried to fire questions at him but to no avail. Later there were complaints from officials that the press had "caused a scene".

At its most extreme, ministers from Western governments breeze through this country keeping their entire journey secret, even if the subject matter being discussed is relatively tame.

Add this all together and it is not hard for China's leaders to think: "Well, there you go. Why should we behave any differently to anyone else? What's more, we understand the need to control the press. The difference is that we don't pretend that we're not doing it."

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