Chinese social media storm over reporter’s eye-roll highlights impatience with staged political events

Audrey Jiajia Li says the enthusiastic response to a reporter’s disdainful reaction to a question at a press conference at China’s annual parliamentary meeting sheds light on people’s frustration with how carefully choreographed official events are

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 12:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 12:10pm

When I covered the “two sessions” – the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – for the first time as a local television journalist nearly 10 years ago, I didn’t realise how much media freedom, by Chinese standards, reporters enjoyed at the time. I was called on several times to ask high-ranking central government officials questions. When I raised a tough question about Pearl River pollution to the environmental protection minister, my boss was a bit nervous. Nevertheless, things turned out fine.

Several years later, the relatively relaxed atmosphere had all but gone. Almost every single question at every press conference had to be submitted beforehand for screening and every journalist who got chosen was on script.

I still put my hand up each year but never got lucky again. Only a photograph of me was once published as an example of women journalists working hard during the Congress session on International Women’s Day. When journalists become the news themselves, it usually indicates that something is not right.

It happened this year again.

A Shanghai-based reporter, Liang Xiangyi, failed to contain her extremely annoyed reaction to a fellow reporter’s 40-second long fawning question that was spun out on not-so-relevant topics such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the 40th anniversary of the country’s reforms. Unlike most other journalists, who would simply identify themselves by their affiliations, Zhang Huijun, the reporter asking the softball question, emphasised her title, operating director of the American Multimedia Television USA.

‘Sing for the new era’: Chinese journalists told to spread the word on Xi Jinping’s ideology

The missable moment then turned into a made-for-TV, viral social media meme.

Liang’s scoffing didn’t appear that newsworthy to me at first glance. But people in China quickly attached far more meaning to it, venting their frustrations at the heavily choreographed rubber-stamp Congress and the tightly controlled news coverage.

Everything about the meetings has been staged and no trace of dissatisfaction is allowed to be made visible

When I chatted with a journalist friend from Taiwan, who has been reporting on the two sessions for almost two decades, she jokingly said that if she wanted to ask a question, she would not only have to submit the question, but also to tell the organiser what colour she would be wearing. “A few years ago, a host at a press conference called on ‘the journalist in red sitting in the second row’ without lifting his head, and as the person stood up, people saw she was in black, as she had taken off her jacket,” she said.

That’s why such a minor scene broke the Chinese internet: everything about the meetings has been staged and no trace of dissatisfaction is allowed to be made visible. Liang just shattered that.

What’s more, Zhang was representing an “American” news outlet – AMTV – which few had ever heard of, and she got to ask a question at the press conference when most of her mainstream counterparts who refused to comply with the screening were rarely called on. AMTV turns out to be a California-based Chinese-language broadcaster which has close ties to China Central Television, and its president happens to head a Confucius Institute in Los Angeles.

The eyes have it on the question of tedium

In the past decade, I’ve encountered dozens of reporters representing purported “international” news organisations, who always asked sycophantic questions.

What we see here is that, on the one hand, a rising China has become increasingly confident so that from, time to time, the spokesperson for the foreign ministry would criticise big-name Western news outlets as “hostile and biased”. On the other hand, the authorities are so desperate for praise from the international community that they would play up anything positive from the West and invest a lot in these bogus foreign media outlets to show the domestic audience how significant the country and its agenda are.

Now, to some extent, the viral eye-roll is just like the little child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, isn’t it?

Audrey Jiajia Li is the 2017-2018 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation