State leaves little to chance as media follows prepared script

How to train your audience for a faultless press conference with the perfect balance of questions and answers from hand-picked journalists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 1:01pm

I have no doubt that there will be a pre-election by Beijing loyalists for the next chief executive. The evidence lies in the press conferences of newly appointed Premier Li Keqiang and listed oil giant PetroChina.

First, the premier's maiden meet-the-press session. Isn't it interesting that the moderator was able to say "the lady in the fourth row in the yellow section" in a split second when picking one among 800 eager faces wanting to ask a question?

Isn't it interesting that in all these sessions in the past 11 years, journalists picked from the crowd come from the following: China Daily, People's Daily, China Central Television, China National Radio, Xinhua, an international news agency, one of the Hong Kong media, one of the Taiwan media, a US newspaper or television station, a European magazine or newspaper?

Isn't it interesting that their questions for Li covered all you need for a maiden "speech" - his five-year plan, urbanisation and restructuring of the bureaucracy (his pet projects), the anti-corruption campaign, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Sino-US relationship, Sino-European ties, Sino-Russian policy and a short personal statement?

It is the result of faultless planning. A retired Hong Kong journalist who has covered most of these sessions walked me through it.

Every March, thousands of journalists crowd into Beijing to cover the National People's Congress. Friendly or influential media are invited to file questions for the premier. With the advice of the propaganda people, he picks the questions.

Responsible officials then meet the lucky few, not only to inform them of their good fortune but also to agree on the wording of the question. Say, instead of bringing up a disagreement between Beijing and the Vatican on the appointment of a controversial bishop, the reporter is to ask about the obstacles to the re-establishment of bilateral ties.

Once a deal is reached, training will follow. For the next few days, you will meet the official every day to recite the agreed question. Absurd? Absolutely, but still, you get the chance to question the premier. Nobody tells you what the penalty is if you ask something else. That won't be necessary.

On the big day, you will be met by an officer who will be your shadow. He or she will sit very close, if not next to you, to make sure you will be identified by the moderator.

Years ago, I went through this process before questioning the minister of commerce, though he was not senior enough to require a training session.

Now, PetroChina. It is a listed company with shareholder accountability, and it couldn't have "managed" the media like the state does, right? Of course not. Managing a press conference is all we are talking about.

The oil giant announced its results on Thursday. Journalists had loads of questions.

Chairman Jiang Jiemin, who was rumoured in autumn to have fled the country, after he had disappeared for four months, resigned this week. Some say he is going to head the country's state assets manager. No official confirmation has been made. Meanwhile, the firm reported another fall in profit to the lowest in five years, its refineries bleeding red ink.

None of these issues was raised. Instead, a reporter from mainland state-owned media asked four questions, ranging from the firm's three-year development plan to Beijing's discussion of price reform for petroleum products.

A reporter from a state-owned newspaper in Hong Kong asked what PetroChina is going to do about smog in northern China.

They got some scripted answers from the management, including a lecture on the link between the solar system, the absence of smog on earth 100 million years ago when there were no humans, and a promise to upgrade its oil products.

Subsequently, a journalist from an international wire was picked but he had only time to clarify some inconsistencies in the numbers given. That was it.

The media present was appalled, yet not surprised. Thirteen years into its Hong Kong listing, the oil giant prefers a low profile. Hong Kong journalists got to meet its management only twice a year during results announcement, which is much rarer than meeting the premier.

A few years ago, some Hong Kong journalists received calls from the firm's public relations people offering a chance to question the management at the result announcement. There was one condition, though.

The reporter had to ask two questions prepared by the company in return for one of his or her own, according to two of the journalists approached.

The veteran journalists who spoke to me did not take the "deal" seriously. (Why should they?) They were "naughty" at question time. They now know the price for that with no independent journalists being hand-picked to ask questions.

Now, you see why there is definitely going to be a pre-election. If no uncertainty can be tolerated with a press conference, what about the leadership of Hong Kong?