Adroit officials duck the tough questions
The Olympics briefly took centre stage at the National Party Congress this week and government and Games organisers Bocog held a press conference in the Great Hall of the People. The event was a media crowd-puller, given that the annual government rubber-stamping sessions were occurring just 150 days before the Games.
For foreign correspondents tracking the long road to the Beijing Olympics, the opportunity to visit the citadel of Chinese politics was welcomed. Inside the Great Hall, elbow room was as tight as the security blanket that falls on the capital when the Communist Party bigwigs roll into town in their blacked-out sedans.
For fun, silly bets were placed on a new syndrome recently discovered at Bocog press conferences: It's called 'Beijing Duck Question', or BDQ.
A BDQ is usually a question planted by Bocog or the government and asked by a correspondent from one of the state-media outlets. They are designed to allow the answering official to 'state-the-bleeding-government-approved-obvious' in a rambling dialogue that eats up precious, serious news-hunting time.
Alternatively, a BDQ can be a random question that affords the Bocog respondent the same answer - a fortuitous opportunity to repeat statistics and platitudes.
Variants of BDQs have been around for years, of course. The new strain was so-named at a press conference two months ago. Then, 2008 Olympic promotion film directors, Briton Daryl Goodrich and Hong Kong's Andy Lau, were asked by a reporter just after Hollywood Oscar winner Steven Spielberg decided to quit his Olympic role over the Darfur situation: 'Do you like Beijing duck?'
What the state media reporter of course couldn't ask, or didn't want to ask (or was oblivious to), was what the directors thought of Spielberg's snub.
Wagering on who will ask the first BDQ (and it's normally the usual suspects) and who can answer for the longest (ditto) helps quell frustration. In the Great Hall the odds were muddled, however. There were too many new faces from unknown media organisations.
As Beijing vice-mayor and Bocog vice-president Liu Jingmin led out opening-ceremony director Zhang Yimou, Bocog's deputy director of the Olympic Village Department, the former Olympic table tennis champion Deng Yaping, and vice-president of the General Administration of Sport, Cui Dalin, for questioning, all bets were off.
The presence of Zhang piqued interest, and not because he is the celebrated director tasked with raising the curtain on modern China during the opening ceremony.
Vice-mayor Liu explained with a liberal peppering of ubiquitous statistics that all was progressing smoothly with the Olympic effort. The conference was then opened to the floor, and Cui was asked the first question by a CCTV reporter.
'Will China top the gold medal table and meet the people's high expectations?'
Obviously the CCTV reporter had not seen the station's reports, nor read the many newspaper stories about the NPC Olympic sideline committee meeting held in public a week earlier.
There, Cui gave a passionate 50-minute speech urging the people to expect only a well-organised Games and not pressure athletes to beat the Americans on home soil, 'because China is not very good at sports'.
He all but repeated the same speech and then repeated details of the same, widely reported anti-doping measures China is planning. His total BDQ answering time was 13 minutes.
The next BDQ was directed at Deng.
'What is your specific portfolio?' asked a state-radio reporter.
BDQ answering time was just over seven minutes.
Reporters from various media organisations managed a slew of BDQs to fill the slotted probe time.
Most mainland journalists know the tough questioning adopted by foreign reporters - those designed to put officials on the spot and catch them off guard - never work in the mainland because the respondents are elusive and too well rehearsed.
Moreover, a leading question designed to ascertain truth is not worth the sacking from a hard-won job. The spectre of detention for humiliating the government is a real threat and no laughing matter.
Perhaps the mainland journalists have a name for the syndrome suffered by the international press: 'Awkward But Unanswerable Show Boat Questions', or ABUSBQs.
These are the abrupt questions asked by foreign journalists - probes that act as half-reminders of real reporting yet yield the same non-news as BDQ answers in a shorter time.
'What discussions have you [during the NPC with your seniors] had on the recent terrorist incidents linked to the Olympics?' this column asked vice-mayor Liu. 'I haven't any details [on this] ... I guarantee safety for all,' he said.
ABUSBQs answering time was just over two minutes. Another to Cui on medal counts didn't clock 60 seconds.
Of course, the international press will never stop asking tough questions, but rarely rile officials into answering with something meaningful.
As one Bocog official told us, the likes of Liu and Cui can expect 'a tsunami' of probes when the rest of the world's press arrive in town in a few months. Then, the days of the BDQs will be numbered.
As it was, it was left to Zhang to give some credence to the routine theatrics this week. He answered the awkward questions with sincerity, if not aplomb. He even had sympathy for all the interrogators.
'I feel as though I should offer you some answers,' he said, and handed out a headline by revealing the opening ceremony would end with an image of 10,000 smiling children.
To counter claims that celebrities in cahoots with governments diminish politics, it should be stated - briefly: 'Not in Olympic China, they don't.'
In full spate
Lengthy answers are a useful way to eat up time
Number of minutes Cui Dalin held forth: 13