China week: Women and politics

A security guard watches through the curtain during the 3rd plenary session of the third session of the 12th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 12 March, 2015 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Curtain call: China's annual National People's Congress draws to a close on 15 March

I feel like a time traveller in my own life heading to a National People's Congress, especially after I noticed a photo of myself from 1993 in China Daily's trip down NPC memory lane.

But little seems to have changed: the same stage set, the same choreography, the same struggle to discover anything worth reporting.

With the anti-corruption drive and ideological tightening hanging over the heads of delegates, the objective of most has been to say nothing that might be deemed newsworthy.

But government ministers and provincial leaders still hold their set piece news conferences and they do produce a smattering of stories.

So here with no more ado is my list of top 2015 NPC news moments. (We suffer so you don't have to.)

1. To what musical form did Foreign Minister Wang Yi compare key initiatives in Chinese foreign policy?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Do the strong words from Wang Yi highlight the dominant view on foreign policy?

He said China's strategic "Belt and Road" initiatives in Central and South Asia were "not a solo but a symphony of all relevant parties".

Mr Wang bridled at the suggestion that this was a Chinese Marshall Plan, a reference to the American aid programme for Europe after World War Two.

The two initiatives are "both much older and much younger", Mr Wang said, evoking the spirit of the ancient silk road in a 21st Century globalised world.

Fine words but it's easier to say the "Belt and Road" are not a Marshall Plan than to say exactly what they are.

2. The Xinjiang Party secretary said some Uighurs were taking up arms alongside what group?

Zhang Chunxian said some Uighurs had fled overseas to join Islamic State and some had returned from war in Iraq and Syria to take part in terrorist plots.

"We recently broke up a terrorist cell run by returnees."

Three months ago, state media said 300 Chinese nationals were fighting alongside IS but Mr Zhang's comments are the first government confirmation of links with Xinjiang extremists.

Although the Xinjiang Party secretary called IS a global threat, so far Beijing has been unwilling to get involved in any discussion of international military efforts against the group.

3. Several women's rights activists were languishing in detention centres, the premier was having his photo taken with women delegates at the NPC, but how did top search engine Baidu celebrate International Women's Day?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Chinese Premier Li Keqiang posed with female delegates on the sidelines of the NPC

To the scorn of many women's rights activists in China and abroad, Baidu marked the day with a front page logo of a princess doll on top of a musical jewellery box.

"Chinese still see women as a wind up toy," said one angry comment on social media.

With dark irony, the same week has seen women activists detained for planning to put up anti-sexual harassment posters in Chinese cities.

Twenty-three per cent of NPC delegates are women and many of the media covering the event are women.

But still the People's Daily felt it appropriate to focus on their looks, with a series of photos of reporters which it called "beauty with brains".

4. "Like Fidel Castro choosing the Pope", commented the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile. But to what NPC moment was he referring?

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The Dalai Lama: China will chose his successor, Beijing insists

Tibet's Governor Padma Choling said the Dalai Lama "profaned the faith" by suggesting he might not be reincarnated.

"If the central government had not approved it, how could he have become the 14th Dalai Lama?' asked the governor. "We must respect history, respect and not profane Tibetan Buddhism."

I guess he's referring to 1940, when the KMT government endorsed the 14th Dalai Lama after an official went to Lhasa to inspect the "soul boy" and report back.

Now China has a Communist government and an atheist ideology, which must be where the Castro parallel is coming from.

5. How much money did the finance minister offer to deal with local government debt?

Finance Minister Lou Jiwei grasped a very big nettle here.

He said local governments would be allowed to swap 1 trillion yuan ($160bn) of high interest debt for bonds.

This is an effort to stop the debt mountain escalating further, and get local government to restructure existing debt, which may be as much as 30 trillion yuan, or a dizzying 47% of GDP.

It will be a huge challenge to get all the dodgy debt onto the books by the end of 2016, but if this process is carried out effectively, the debt will still be massive but at least everyone should be clearer about where it is and what the repayment plan looks like.

6. What did the new environment minister say about the viral hit "Under the Dome" at his NPC news conference?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Environment Minister Chen Jining has remained largely silent about the film
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The popular documentary highlighted China's mounting air pollution woes

Trick question because the answer is nothing.

Originally Chen Jining, in his ministerial post for only a few days, had welcomed the environmental documentary that took China by storm.

He thanked the reporter, Chai Jing, for raising the public's awareness of environmental issues.

But by the time Mr Chen gave his NPC news conference, the documentary had been blocked from Chinese internet sites and all discussion removed from state media.

So the environment minister was in an awkward position and dealt with it by taking no questions from unruly foreign reporters and volunteering no comment on the documentary or its sudden disappearance.

"You have the obligation to uphold the law but not the power," said one polluter to an environmental official in one of the many telling moments in the documentary.

The new environment minister has a big challenge if he's to turn that around.

If good governance requires information and transparency then it is unhelpful to censor the first significant effort to educate the public about the complex factors that play into China's environmental crisis.

7. How many NPC delegates are missing this year due to corruption?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption NPC delegates - but who will be the next investigated for "disciplinary violations"?

At time of writing, the answer is under just under 30.

But I don't want to be too specific as the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection can strike at any time!

Especially as the chairman of the NPC's standing committee, Zhang Dejiang, has now committed parliament to the corruption fight.

And that means he'll need something to show for it.

8. Who described what as "horrible" in an NPC interview which was immediately deleted?

Retired PLA Major General Yang Chunchang gave a scorching TV interview in which he said:

"Everybody in society knows that in the PLA… you need to pay to join the party. Promotions… all have their own price tags.

It has affected the security of the army. It's too horrible, as bribes are in the scale of several tens of million."

The interview swiftly vanished. Some truths are not fit to publish.

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