Five years on, why are China’s political stars shying from the limelight?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 11:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 11:50pm

As the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade national congress and its key power transition approaches, most of the party’s political stars are keeping a low profile on the sidelines of the annual session of the top legislature.

Things were different at the session five years ago, just ahead of the leadership reshuffle at the party’s 18th national congress.

The open-to-foreign-media sessions of the Xinjiang deputies of the National People’s Congress were focal points for journalists.

This was under media-savvy Xinjiang party chief Zhang Chunxian, also a member of the decision-making Politburo, before he was replaced by former Tibetan party boss Chen Quanguo in August last year.

Zhang used to take a couple of questions raised by either foreign or Hong Kong reporters. But this year, Chen, who has his own shot at a seat in the party’s next Politburo, didn’t even bother to show up.

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Chen is like most regional party secretaries these days, who will usually only address a handful of questions that were prepared before the sessions began.

This reporter was barred on Saturday from asking questions of Ying Yong, the new mayor of the financial hub Shanghai, and another politician on the fast track.

“Please, no questions please. The mayor is not ready for any questions right here,” said a young man who claimed to be Ying’s personal secretary.

We can contrast this with some of the more skilled media hands from five years ago.

These include jailed former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was ready to take any kind of question from journalists representing domestic or foreign media organisations. Bo saw it as an opportunity to show off his eloquence.

Wang Yang, now a vice-premier, was also seen as a party leader who was ready for any reporter in 2012.

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Of course, things have changed since the annual parliamentary session five years ago. Now stability has been elevated above all other concerns, and the central government has made it clear that all domestic media should be party affiliated, and that it has no intention of facilitating foreign journalists’ work.

“The last thing we care about is foreign reports about my boss,” a senior propaganda official who serves one of the party’s rising political stars told me on condition of anonymity.

Which is too bad, because this is the last chance for most foreign journalists to access the country’s most up-and-coming politicians ahead of the 19th national congress scheduled for this autumn.

And more than half of the present 25 members of the Politburo will retire this year, provided that the party sticks to its decades-long internal rule that senior officials must pack it in when they reach the age of 68 during the congress.