Zhu Rongji and the Three Female Reporters

(Southern Weekend)  Our appetites grew bit by bit: The story of three female reporters and a Chinese government official.  By Chen Junji.  September 23, 2009.

The fourth section of the book <Zhu Rongji's replies to questions from reporters> is about "Hong Kong reporters who accompanied him on trips."  The questioners were always named as "reporter" with one exception when the questioner was named as "Rose Luqiu."

In January 2002, Rose Luqiu accompanied Zhu Rongji to Bangladesh.  When Zhu learned that she had been to Afghanistan, he praised her as being "exceptional."  So Rose Luqiu took the opportunity and threw a question at Zhu Rongji: "We know that China is about to sign an agreement with Bangladesh that involves the details in the Bangkok Accord.  But does this violate the relevant rules and regulations of the WTO?"

"Since Zhu Rongji had mentioned my name specifically in that conversation, I got to be named."  Rose Luqui told the Southern Weekend reporter.

Actually most of the questions in the section on the Hong Kong reporters came from Rose Luqiu and her Hong Kong peers.  On those trips, Phoenix TV and ATV were present most often, and therefore they supplied much of the information in <Zhu Rongji's replies to questions from reporters>.  In the foreword to <Zhu Rongji's replies to questions from reporters>, Phoenix TV and ATV were thanked.

The first time that Phoenix TV sent a reporter to accompany a Chinese state leader overseas was for the 1998 trip by Zhu Rongji to United Kingdom and France.  The accompanying reporter was Sally Wu. Those Q&A are collected in the first essay <Discussing Sino-Anglo relationships in the United Kingdom> in the fourth section.

Rose Luqiu first traveled overseas with a state leader in 1998.  She and Sally Wu accompanied Zhu Rongji to the United States and Canada.  From there to 2002, Rose Luqiu was almost always on the Zhu Rongji's trips.

On one occasion, Rose Luqiu followed Zhu Rongji on a trip that covered 14 cities in 2 weeks.  "I was going to pass out from the airplane flights."

That was also the first time that Rose Luqui posed a question to Zhu Ronji.  At the time, the world was paying attention on China's discussions with WTO.  At the welcoming ceremony on the White House lawn given by President Clinton, Zhu Rongji began by saying that the blue skies were so beautiful.  So Rose Luqiu shouted a question from afar: If you have to describe the talks between China and the USA about China's entry into the WTO in terms of weather, who would you describe it?  "He seemed to have said from afar: Ha, ha, very good.  At the time, our questions were less demanding and that was good enough."  Rose Luqiu said.

Rose Luqiu described the situation at the time: "When I first began taking those trips, I did not have any opportunity to pose a full question.  As long as Zhu Rongji said, "How are you?", said "Hello" or smiled a couple of time, everybody thought that it was big news that he said something.  Later on, Zhu Rongji would stop to respond to the questions, even though he only uttered a couple of sentences.  Later on, we observed that his answers were getting longer and longer.  So our appetite also grew bigger bit by bit."

During the 2000 trip to Japan-South Korea, Zhu Rongji criticized Rose Luqiu in a joking manner: "Hey, your question is so badly posed."  Today Rose Luqiu is the Phoenix TV News executive news editor and she has forgotten what the exact question was.  "It was on economics.  It may have been repetitious."  This joke left a huge impression on her.  For a period afterwards, she consulted many top experts in economics and did a lot of homework.  "Opportunities are fleeting and you must use them well.  If you fail, it is your fault."

That film clip was never shown on air and this joke was not collected in <Zhu Rongji's replies to questions from reporters>.  The text in this book were taken from the broadcast segments.  Records were not all kept and some of the original tapes are gone.  The book only preserved part of the history.

In the eyes of Rose Luqiu, Zhu Rongji had a relaxed style in giving replies.  He did not mind what the reporters asked, because he had answers for everything.  At first, people were somewhat reserved.  Later on as more questions and answers took place, people became more at ease.  "He was always smiling.  He always smiled when he saw the reporters.  You just put out the microphone there and you know that he will head in that direction.  Everybody knew that if he saw someone that he recognized, he would come over and all you had to do was pose the question."

Many years later, Rose Luqiu could still recall some of the questions that she asked Zhu Rongji, such as the personal income tax.  "Were they talking about reducing personal income tax at the time?  Of course, but nothing has ever happened even up to now.  There was also the matter of the secondary stock market.  We asked many times."  "Later on, I asked him whether he was going to retire.  Actually this was a very sensitive question because everybody knew that he was due to leave his job when the transferal of power takes place.  I asked him very directly and he gave me a very direct answer.  He said, On the Long River, the waves from behind will push the waves in front forwards."

Hong Kong reporters began to accompany Chinese leaders on trips after the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

At first, the Hong Kong reporters had to rely on their connections.  "For example, when Jiang Zemin was swimming, we were placed far away but we were satisfied as long as we got a little bit of something.  The Hong Kong reporters who accompanied Zhu Rongji to the United Kingdom and France, they use the connections with the U.K. Foreign Ministry to gain access to gather news."

The conditions for Hong Kong reporters truly improved during the 1998 trip by Zhu Rongji to the United States.  At the time, a Hong Kong reporter got into a fight with workers because he could not get a White House press pass.  The dissatisfied Hong Kong reporters complained to Zhu Rongji.  The Foreign Ministry then made sure that whenever there had to be restrictions on the number of reporters, a least one or two slots will be reserved for the Hong Kong media.  The Hong Kong government also sent out information officers who communicated with the Foreign Ministry on these trips.  Each night, the Foreign Ministry will sent the agenda of the next day to the information officer who coordinate with the Hong Kong reporters to see who gets to go (which is often decided by drawing lots).

After that incident, all Hong Kong media reporters are listed as part of the Chinese press contingent.

At the time, the Foreign Ministry arranged for the hotel accommodations for the official Chinese media reporters who also get to travel on the same airplane as Zhu Rongji . But the Phoenix TV reporters did not ride in Zhu Rongji's special airplane and they didn't stay at the same hotel.  "Why didn't we want to ride the special airplane?  We have joked with him about it: If we ride in the your airplane, we would be subjected to more restrictions.  It is better for us to maintain a certain distance which gives a greater degree of freedom."  Rose Luqiu said.

In Rose Luqiu's opinion, the biggest difference between Hong Kong and mainland reporters is that the Hong Kong reporters will wait from morning to night at the hotel where the state leader is residing as long as they are allowed to.  "People don't mind or can't control this, so we count on our luck and patience to get our questions in.  In the official events when the state leaders meet the press, the questions are basically given to the official media to ask.  The other Chinese reporters get to ask one or two questions and the reporters from the other country get to ask one or two questions.  So we have to create our own opportunities."

There is also competition among the Hong Kong reporters who have to use their intelligence.  They estimate all the times when Zhu Rongji entered or exited the hotel, including the door that he would be using.  Whoever is smarter may get an exclusive that day.  Mainland reporters never used to engage in that sort of competition.  When the Hong Kong reporters intercepted the leaders to ask questions, the mainland reporters are not allow to air the video because this is not an official event.  But things appeared to have loosened up in recent years when the China News Agency reporters will sometimes wait alongside the Hong Kong reporters.  Sometimes, Phoenix TV provides the content to the Central News Agency which will show the entire segment.

Back then, Zhu Rongji spoke to the Hong Kong reporters in front of the hotel.  Nowadays the Hong Kong reporters do not have to wait around the hotel entrance all day anymore.  When Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao travel abroad, they will arrange a special time to meet with the reporters.  The reporters sit down and ask some questions that they have collected among themselves.  CCTV, Xinhua, China Radio and other official media reporters sometimes participate in these meetings too.

Rose Luqiu thinks that these changes occurred with Wen Jiabao.  One time, Wen Jiabao invited the reporters to come to his room for the interview.  From that moment on, Wen Jiabao will basically find some place outside his room to chat with reporters at leisure.

Jiang Zemin did not interact too much with reporters, possibly because his security arrangements were tighter.  But there was one time when he walked over to Rose Luqiu but that was so surprising that her cameraman did not bring the camera up.  They were both sorry afterwards.

In 2003, Hu Jintao traveled to Russia and Rose Luqiu went on the trip.  Phoenix TV, CCTV and two Russian television channels conducted a special interview with Hu Jintao.  Hu Jintao said to Rose Luqiu: "One must pursue a career, one's security must be guaranteed."  Afterwards, Hu Jintao even asked the reporters to have their photos taken with him.  "It is the same people who always follow him around.  Their faces are familiar."


CCTV reporter Chai Jing sat down and spoke to Wen Jiabao once.  He encouraged young reporters to persist.  Chai Jing asked, "Premier Wen must have encountered many setbacks in the past.  How did you manage to maintain yout outlook?"

Wen Jiabao said that he went on an inspection tour in Hebei province and saw an old farmer sitting by the roadside next to a coffin.  He got out of the car and inquired.  The farmer said that he was ill and had no money to pay for medical expenses.  Therefore, he is selling the coffin that he had previously bought for himself.  Wen gave 500 yuan to the old man and told him to go home.

Wen Jiabao said, "I tell you about this because I want you to persist.  There are endless number of things on this earth of China.  You should not be bothered by the occasional setbacks.  You have to persist."

Southern Weekend: You have covered the "Two Congresses" over the years.  During the "Two Congresses," how different are the styles and issues for the reporters from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese media?

Chai Jing:  I did not pay too much attention to that.  For me, the competition is like a red line that moves.  We each have our own audience.  I only care about my own audience.  If there is an overlap, then it will depend who has done their homework, who has a better understanding, who has first-hand information and who can pose a question that forms its own logic.  I am not there to interview celebrity officials; I am not there to interview power-holders; I am there to interview a person who has the power to determine a reality which can affect the lives of millions.  On this, I believe that the mainland Chinese reporters whose roots are here will have an advantage.

Southern Weekend: Mainland reporters are often described as "lousy at formulating questions" for mainland officials.  Do you think that such a phenomenon exists?

Chai Jing: People ultimately serve their employer.  So it depends on how one determines "lousy at formulating questions."  For market-oriented media, it is possible that the readers or viewers would have chosen to forsake such reporters already.

Southern Weekend: At the "Two Congresses" or other occasions when Chinese and foreign reporters meet with officials, have the types of questions from mainland reporters changed in recent years?

Chai Jing: Competition is the basis for improvement.  The National People's Congress has invited certain market-oriented media to cover the "Two Congresses" and they have studied how to break up the monopoly based upon the different audiences in order to inject vitality.

Southern Weekend: Many of the questions posed by foreign reporters in the book <Zhu Rongji's replies to questions from reporters>  are very sharp to the point that some Chinese will say that they are "offensive" and carry western biases.  How do you look at this?

Chai Jing: I have also chatted on the issue of bias with United States State Department officials.  They said that their media are also often provocative and unbalanced against them too.  They said helplessly: "They treat us the same way."  But they accepted the professional role of reporters to be "monitors/supervisors."  Prejudices often arise due to ignorance, so that the best way to correct biases is to allow a free-flowing market of opinions that are made available and discussed in order to win over the majority in a rational way.

Southern Weekend: When you pose questions to more senior officials, do you feel any pressure  to not ask certain things?

Chai Jing.  No.  The only thing that I worry about is whether I asked my questions accurately.  I was interviewing State Finance Office director Chen Tinwen and his replies on the land requisition problem were very incisive.  When my colleague watched this video segment, she said that even greater incisiveness would not be troublesome.  I asked her why and she said, "Because he was very sincere."  A few days ago, I interviewed Gao Qiang on financial problems and his answers were also quite direct.  I asked him how it was possible to speak out this way within a bureaucratic system.  He said: "Precision."  I feel that this word is very important.  When you speak fairly and honestly and you have a precise grasp of the facts, you wouldn't have to soften up because you are worried about something.  I interviewed an official at the Development Reform Committee about the flaws in the emergency system found when the snow storms hit, he said: "Finally, someone has asked me this question."  So he finally found a chance to respond to the doubts.

Southern Weekend: There is a saying among journalists: Senior officials are fairly open in their attitudes towards reporters, but the minor local officials are relatively conservative, even brutish.  How do you deal with local officials?

Chai Jing: There are two types of local officials.  One type is those whose interests are directly affected by your reporting and it is easy to imagine that they will resort to violence.  But most of them are the other type who lack experience so that their fears made them go to extremes.  Different methods are required to deal with different situations.  One has to have some understanding about the ways of the world.  I feel that it is very important for reporters not to become like someone just because you hate him.  Even if he has violated your rights, you must protect his right to speak up as an accused.

I once interviewed an official in Kaiping city about land requisition.  He was enraged and became extremely rude to us.  We were even scared during our filming.  If we showed the video, he would have looked an ogre.  But he realized several hours later that trouble was coming, so he wanted me to re-interview him again.  I headed to the airport immediately and I interviewed him again.  What I wanted was not a dramatic, provocative television segment.  I wanted to find the information that I wanted to know about.  After the interview, I told him that I interviewed him because of my professionalism and therefore I hope that he will respect reporters in the future.

Southern Weekend: Under the present conditions in China, how can we establish an equal relationship between government officials and reporters?

Chai Jing: For me, as soon as the red light on the camera goes on, he has only one identity: he is my interview subject.  I don't feel that he is any different from other people.  I only want to get information from him.  The most important thing for me is the issue that I am interested in, and whether I can pose the questions on behalf of those who are silent.


Singapore-based newspaper Zaobao's Beijing correspondent Han Yonghong was sent there in 2005.  She found her work in China to be very appealing as well as challenging, adding up to an unforgettable experience.  When she participates in press conference along with Chinese reporters, she finds that the mainland media tend to pose questions that allow the government to explain their policies.  But some less restrictive media will ask questions to make the government come up with a statement of its position as well as convey a doubtful attitude.

There are certain sensitive questions in the book <Zhu Rongji's replies to questions from reporters> that some Chinese might consider to be harassment.  "But for foreign media, these types of questions should be asked."  Han Yonghong said.

In her view, the western media pose more incisive questions which will bring out more detailed truths.  First of all, they will not ask a question to let the government explain its policies.  They feel that the policies have already been explained, so why should they provide yet another opportunity to explain?  Secondly, they will ask some questions that casts doubts on the government which will have to state its position.  Thirdly, they ask more concrete questions.  At smaller press conferences or interviews, they are liable to ask: "What is the price of calamus?"  "How many people left after the disturbances in Tibet?  How people visited the Potala Palace that year?  How many people used to visit it each month?  How many people visit it each month now?"

Han Yonghong thinks that the Chinese media may be asking the same kinds of questions, but they often do so only on a one-to-one basis in private.  "There are many unofficial interviews in China, during dinners or chats.  They sometimes don't dare to report these private comments.  At the press conferences, there is important information but not the most sensitive kinds of information.  Most of the time, they are just grandstanding.  This is to the disadvantage of overseas media because foreign media have fewer opportunities to meet with officials in private."  Han Yonghong said.

She thinks that it be will the Chinese who can find the real news in China.  The foreign media do not have enough connections and sources in China and the Chinese are wary of foreigners.  Therefore, the foreign media often cannot get the information.  But the Chinese reporters are still different from the western reporters in terms of their self-definition.  "The western reporters are the Fourth Estate.  In China, the rights to supervise through public opinion and to monitor with the media are still struggling to be developed."

Han Yonghong has found that there have been big improvements in the official Chinese media in recent years.  "They have more room, including the reports they can publish as well as the restrictions on their television news reports.  Therefore, they will often ask incisive questions, sometimes even more penetrating than those from western media.  Actually I think that if they want to ask the incisive questions, they can definitely beat all the western media."