How to ask China's prime minister a question - and get a real answer

Since China's prime minister approves questions before a press conference, he has time to formulate bland answers. But sometimes a cheeky foreign reporter finds a workaround.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gestures during a press conference after the closing session of the annual National People's Congress held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, in China, Wednesday.

There is no better measure of Chinese officialdom’s control-freakery than Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s encounter with the press at the close of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China’s ersatz parliament.

This year’s performance, like last year, and the year before, was a grand set-piece event. Several hundred journalists gathered in a gaudily pillared reception room in the Great Hall of the People, photographers clicked madly whenever Mr. Wen made a photogenic gesture, and we all went through the motions of a press conference.

But if you thought the rubber-stamp National Press Club sessions were scripted, you should have been at the press event. Every question asked had been solicited, negotiated, and approved by Chinese officials. If you had not been through that process, there was no point in putting your hand up.

Chinese state-run media, whose reporters always get a chance to ask a question, can be trusted to serve up softballs. The official news agency Xinhua, for example, opened the proceedings today with a less-than-challenging request that Wen “evaluate your work” since he took office nine years ago.

Foreign reporters generally make more of an effort to elicit something other than pabulum, but they can do so only if they play by the rules. And that means submitting questions in advance and negotiating their wording so as not to give offense. 

This can take several days of back and forth, and frankly I wonder whether it is worth it.

Foreign journalists asked Wen questions on sensitive topics such as when China would allow direct competitive elections to its national leadership, the recent spate of self-immolations by Tibetan monks, and China’s controversial refusal to back Western policies toward Syria.

But since the prime minister had seen the questions in advance, he and his aides had had plenty of time to formulate bland and unexceptional answers to all of them.

Luckily for us, though, at the end of the three-hour press conference at which the didactic Wen took an average of 13 minutes to answer a question, a cheeky Reuters correspondent ducked the rules. He asked the question that he had flagged in advance – an anodyne inquiry about the level of local government debt – and then snuck in a second question about a disgraced police chief who has sparked a scandal that has embroiled one of China’s most high-profile politicians, Bo Xilai.( read more about that here)

Wen took the question, and he gave a newsworthy answer. It did not seem that hard, or painful for him. Why, we were left wondering, can he not do that all the time? 

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