The people absent from their great hall

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am

A few token athletes aside, party conference could pass for meeting of Fortune 500

Judging from media coverage alone, it is easy to mistake the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party for a business conference like the World Economic Forum or Fortune 500 - except for the absence of foreign business magnates.

Press conferences, carefully choreographed by party organisers, featured mostly government ministers, top bankers and business leaders. The proletariat were sorely absent.

Managers and chairmen of big state-owned companies - almost all of them are party members - dominated newspaper headlines for days, and comments by Tu Guangshao, a vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, caused a stir in the market when he commented on plan for a share-swap mechanism between A and H shares.

Party propagandists did roll out few new socialist role models such as Olympic medallists and Yang Liwei - China's first astronaut - but the media limelight was clearly on the country's rich and powerful.

Ouyang Song , a deputy chief of the Communist Party's Organisation Department, gave the only press conference on party affairs so far despite obvious efforts by the party to increase transparency.

Unlike previous congresses, reporters were allowed for the first time to raise questions at group discussion meetings involving congressional delegates that were open to the press.

However, the media relations endeavours are still carefully managed. Propaganda officials collected questions and screened out sensitive ones. Beijing party Secretary Liu Qi took the cautious path and signalled to the officials to end the media session early.

But some officials such as Jiangsu party Secretary Li Yuanchao and Chongqing party Secretary Wang Yang appeared to be more media savvy. Mr Li, widely tipped for promotion after the congress, gave an interview to a group of overseas reporters and discussed issues such as democracy.

Mr Wang, another rising star, talked about speculation he would soon be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee. 'I'd like to know, too,' he said. 'Maybe I should ask Secretary He tonight,' he said referring to He Guoqiang , a vice-secretary of the Secretariat.

Observers believed the improved transparency demonstrated more sophistication in media management than a real sense of openness in party affairs.

For example, journalists are forbidden to line up interviews with delegates on their own, and all interviews have to be conducted in the media centre - in a hotel far from the Great Hall of the People where meetings are being held - under tight strict scrutiny and control.

Zhan Jiang , dean of the journalism department at China Youth University for Political Sciences, said the media arrangement was clearly a strategy to divert the media's attention to less sensitive topics.

'But what people care most about is still the political agenda and who the leaders will be,' he said.

The opacity of the congress was still prevalent. Although the congress will close tomorrow, organisers have yet to release information on the name list of the new Central Committee who will be voted on by delegates tomorrow. It was also unclear if the new Politburo Standing Committee - the apex of power - will break with tradition and hold a press conference on Monday after the new leadership is elected.