How Foreign Correspondents Covered the Two Congresses

(Southern Weekend)  How Foreign Correspondents Covered the Two Congresses.  March 22, 2007.  By Guo Li (郭力).

In the memory of CNN's China correspondent Jaime FlorCruz, it was a major heavy-weight report in the 1980's for the China-based foreign media to be able to say that the "two Congresses will begin on such a day during such a month."  That is because "no one ever told us when the meetings start and never mind the subjects of those meetings, because we had to guess everything."  Therefore, when the two national congresses became open to the foreign media for the first time, FlorCruz could "not even imagine it."

Eighteen years later, FlorCruz is still reporting on the two Congresses in China.  But this year, he is paying more attention to education, medical care, inequality of wealth and other issues.

Including FlorCruz, a total of 560 reporters from 135 foreign media outlets gathered news at the two Congresses this year.  For the same time, they saw the English-language versions of the standing committee work reports as well as draft laws.  Also for the first time, they can look up directly from the web pages of the "news center for the two Congresses" the names and addresses of the various representative groups and their contact telephone numbers.

The foreign correspondents are obtaining a more complete knowledge of the "two Congresses," the committee member representatives at the "two Congresses" and the country of China.

At this year's two Congresses, the foreign correspondents were able to use the Internet to submit applications forms and digital photographs to the "news center of the two national Congresses" directly for the first time in order to obtain press passes for the two Congresses.

Swiss TV's Chinese employee Lisa Huang said that the Swiss TV correspondent "sent out the electronic materials at 9pm on the preceding evening and was able to obtain the press card the next morning."  But some foreign correspondents were not able to get their press cards because "their photographs did not satisfy the requirements."

The foreign correspondents were even more appreciative of the fact that two months after the implementation of the "Regulations on reporting by foreign correspondents in China during the Olympics and preparatory period," they were permitted to directly contact the committee member representatives of the two Congresses for interviewed.  "This regulation said that as long as the person agrees, the foreign correspondent may conduct the interview.  Obviously, this includes the committee member representatives at the two Congresses."  Asia Weekly correspondent Wang Jianmin said, "with the new regulation as backup, foreign correspondents feel emboldened to interview the representatives."

Among the foreign correspondents interviewed by this reporter, it was the unanimous opinion that "the two Congresses were trying to work towards greater openness and transparency."  But the benefits of the new policy have not materialized instantly.

"We obtained all the addresses and telephone numbers of all the representative groups.  But I called the numbers of several representative groups and nobody picked up the telephone," said CNN correspondent FlorCruz.  "Perhaps the representatives were busy.  So in the end, I submitted some interview applications to the news center for the two Congresses."

The "interview application" that FlorCruz is referring to is the "registration of foreign correspondents for interviewing People's Congress representatives" (if they are interviewing Political Consultative Committee members, they have to fill out the "Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and foreign correspondents application forms for interviews).  The correspondent has to list the representative to be interviewed, the group to which the representatives belongs, the summary of the interview content, the organization to which the correspondent belongs, and so on.  The news center for the two Congresses will then make the contact and supply replies and arrangements.  However, not all of these applications resulted in the desired outcomes.

Before the two Congresses opened up, a Xinhua reporter interviewed Sichuan's National People's Congress representative Song Yuhua who said: "I have never been interviewed by a foreign correspondent.  I have not made any mental preparations."  "If they really want to interview me, I am going to be more careful."

This kind of wariness was sensed by a Reuters correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous.  He said that when he handed over his name card to the ten National People's Congress representatives from a certain province, "they all said that they did not bring their name cards."  When they responded to questions, "they don't seem to want to give full replies."

"This may be the result of certain traditional ideas of Chinese people," said CNN correspondent FlorCruz.  Another foreign correspondent believes that "it is understandable that the representatives are wary.  It takes some time for a quantitative change to become a qualitative change.  At least, this was a good start which is building a good framework."  Japanese Kyodo agency correspondent Kouza thinks "that the representatives of the two Congresses are still not used to it."

But Kouza obtained many results from the two Congresses.  He interviewed Gao Ziguo, director of the State Oceanic Administration's Institute of Strategic Research for Oceanic Development.  "This was the first time that a Chinese expert told us about the oceanic policies of China in such great detail, as well as about the Sino-Japanese dispute over gas field and China's views on the Okinotorishima islands."

Therefore, in CNN correspondent FlorCruz's opinion, the representatives and committee members "have seen the signals from the central government and they are beginning to make contact with the media while realizing that there are benefits to them."

CNN reporter FlorCruz has covered the "two Congresses" many times, but he thought that "the most significant experience" was at the press conference given by Zhu Rongji.  "I was fortunate to be able to ask two question."  He does not remember the details of those questions anymore, but he remembered that in the streets of Beijing afterwards, "many Chinese strangers would say hello to him" and said that the questions that he asked were "very good."

At the two Congresses this year, France's Le Monde reporter Bruno Philip's question led to a huge response.  He asked Premier Wen Jiabao whether "China does not need democracy for the next 100 years."  This was even regarded as a "provocation."  Bruno Philip told this reporter that he had also prepared a question about the protection of personal property in China.  In the end, he chose to ask the question on democracy because he felt that "this question should receive attention from more people."  Concerning Premier Wen's reply, he felt that it was "very direct."

In June 1991, at the fourth plenum of the seventh National People's Congress, then State Council premier Li Peng held the first press conference by a premier.  From the two Congresses in 1993 onward, the premier's press conference became a regular feature.

But if there was a persistent trend over the various premier's press conferences, then it will be the political questions like the one raised by Bruno Philip will become fewer and fewer.  Instead, they are being replaced by questions on economics and livelihood.

There are these statistics: at the two Congresses, Li Peng answered a total of 124 questions of which 16% were related to the economy.  During the term of Zhu Rongji, the percentage rose to 28%.  At Premier Wen's press conference this year, 5 of the 11 questions were related to the economy and livelihood.

In the three New York Times reports on the two Congresses, apart from the first report on the opening of the two Congresses, the other two were about the property rights law.  For the New York Times reporters, the property rights law is a "landmark event in the national development of China."

It was not only the New York Times which shifted the reporting emphasis away from political news.  Actually, apart from the property rights law, the foreign media's most common topics during the two Congresses were "the emphasis in the government work report on a fair and equitable society" and "corporate income tax law."

CNN correspondent FlorCruz said, "But compared to free education, medical insurance and inequality of wealth, democracy cannot be said to be the most urgent thing that the common Chinese people want."

Bruno Philip's question was derived from Premier Wen Jiabao's essay in People's Daily published right before the two Congresses.  This question led to the opinion that "western reporters don't understand China."  But another foreign correspondent said that his own understanding of Premier Wen's essay was "completely opposite" to that of Philip.

He particularly referred to the two lines of poetry that Premier Wen cited at the press conference: "A thousand sails passed by the moored ship, Ten million trees blossomed in front of the sick tree" and "To go ask the earth on which flowers blossom, To go ask the river in which the ice is melting."  One came from an ancient poem and the other came from a modern poem.  "They are worth contemplating."

"The foreign media on China are better than before in terms of both quantity and quality," felt FlorCruz.  "From the other side, foreign correspondents can understand China through the free exchange between the two sides, whether officials or citizens.  Understanding can only improve when communication takes place."

Many more foreign correspondents are beginning to use the Chinese language.  At the press conferences of the Premier, Foreign Minister and Finance Minister, they asked their questions in Chinese.  "You cannot really enter into Chinese society using foreign languages," said Japanese Kyodo correspondent Kouza.

A foreign correspondent who began to report on the two Congresses since 1995 said: "Many foreign correspondents based in China have lived here for many years.  Many of the spouses of the foreign correspondents are Chinese persons from Hong Kong, Taiwan or mainland China.  We have learned putonghua for more than a decade."

When asked about the person that they wanted to interview most of all and the associated question, the foreign correspondents gave different answers.

CNN correspondent FlorCruz wanted most of all to interview Premier Wen Jiabao and ask: "How do you convince the world that the rise of China will not lead to an arrogant and aggressive superpower?"

Reuters correspondent Benjamin Lim wanted to ask Chairman Hu Jintao: "How do you hope China to be in five years' time?  ten years' time?"

Japanese Kyodo correspondent Kouza wanted more to ask Li Changchun about the prospects for news reporting in China and he also wanted to ask Zeng Qinghong about his future work plans.  To Kouza, these problems "are far more important than all the topics in Sino-Japanese relationships."

France's Le Monde correspondent Bruno Philip said that he wanted to ask Premier Wen Jiabao a question: How does he ensure that the various policies from the central government are being effectively carried out at the local level?