Wen Jiabao

Gone missing: a little premiership passion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am

The annual press conference of Premier Wen Jiabao, broadcast live on television, radio and the internet, is always considered the climax marking the end of the 10-day annual session of the National People's Congress.

This is not just because it is the only occasion all year that the Chinese premier faces a grilling from a dozen selected mainland and overseas reporters. The live, two-hour press conference is also the only occasion that lets ordinary mainlanders have a first-hand look at an unvarnished performance by one of the mainland's top leaders.

Since 2003, when Wen gave his first press conference as premier, he has developed a reputation for giving open and often passionate answers, laced with the extensive quotes from ancient and contemporary Chinese and foreign philosophers and economists.

But judging from his performance yesterday, Wen appears to have lost some of his passion with just two years left in office. And just as noteworthy, it appears that overseas reporters have lost interest in posing tough questions over the sensitive issues of Tibet and human rights.

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of deadly anti-government unrest that first broke out in Lhasa and then spread to other Tibetan areas. It was also the day that the exiled Tibetan parliament opened a session to discuss the Dalai Lama's plan to step down.

None of the overseas reporters who were called upon even used the opportunity to ask about China's stance on nuclear power development given the rising international concern over a possible meltdown at one of Japan's nuclear power plants.

It is an open secret that the news outlets that are lucky enough to raise questions in front of the premier are carefully screened, with their questions examined and approved by the mainland authorities beforehand, which kind of explains why Wen sounds confident and prepared, citing poems or figures at will.

It is safe to assume that the questions posed at the press conference are those the premier wants to reply to in order to send out messages.

Of the 12 questions Wen responded to yesterday at least seven were related to China's economic and financial policies this year and its blueprint for the next five years.

Intriguingly, no questions on foreign affairs or China's secretive military build-up were raised.

One of the rare highlights of the briefing came in the form of questions from French magazine Le Point about the impact of Middle East unrest on China.

CNN asked about Wen's legacy - he is scheduled to retire in 2013 - and added another question on the country's long-stalled political reform.

Wen laughed at the first question, saying it was too early to discuss his legacy. He seemed well prepared for such seemingly difficult questions, reiterating his support for political reform.

Towards the end of the press conference, Wen realised that there was one message he wanted to put out but that reporters had failed to ask. So he asked if Japanese reporters were present and then went on to ask them to pass on a message to the Japanese people about China's efforts to help Japan in the wake of Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

While the jury is still out on suggestions that Wen's recent briefings have lacked the sparkle of previous years, the Legal Evening News, a Beijing-based newspaper, has offered some clues.

In a report analysing all the questions posed by overseas reporters in the eight press conferences Wen hosted since 2003, it said it had seen a dramatic shift in the way that overseas reporters phrased their questions 'from nitpicking to learning'.

'Overseas reporters used to focusing on nitpicking China's domestic politics,' it said.

'But after the international financial crisis, they have changed their tone dramatically, showing more attention to China's economy, foreign policies, and views.'

It said their questions were now phrased more like 'a primary school pupil' seeking advice from the premier.