China is unlike any other country in the world when it comes to press conferences: You generally learn more from the questions that are asked than from the answers that officials give.
That rule of thumb proved valid again Sunday as new Prime Minister Li Keqiang met the press for the first time. He seemed confident and relaxed, but like his predecessors, he answered only questions that journalists had submitted in advance, and that his press office had approved.
At Chinese press conferences you learn which topics the government thinks are important and what message it wants to transmit to the citizenry from the questions that the authorities allow. But you don’t get much fresh information from the answers.
Mr. Li’s responses were, for the most part, pretty bland. We did not learn much that we had not already known before we filed into the elaborately decorated ballroom in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square for the premier’s annual press conference carried live on national TV.
But a softball question from People's Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist party, ("What are the government’s goals and the top priorities on its agenda?") allowed Li to stress his intention of raising incomes and strengthening the social security net – a major worry for many Chinese – and of making China a fairer country.
That will have gone down well with the hundreds of millions of citizens who have learned from experience that you don’t get far in this country without the right connections.
The Chinese state radio correspondent tossed him a question about the government’s plans to combat official corruption, another huge gripe among ordinary Chinese, which gave the new prime minister a chance to pledge his “unshakeable resolve” to root out dishonesty in government.
Overseas reporters had a chance to put their questions, too – an American was permitted a carefully worded query about US-China relations, including a reference to US allegations that the Chinese government is behind a lot of cyber-espionage; a Frenchman was allowed to ask about the foul air we have been breathing in Beijing for the past 10 weeks; a Russian asked about the future of Sino-Russian relations.
None of them elicited anything that could be mistaken for news, however. He batted away the question of hacking with the standard line that China too is a victim of hackers, and complained – with a smile – that he detected “a presumption of guilt” in the reporter’s question that he did not accept.
The authorities were especially nervous on Sunday about what foreign reporters might ask because the press conference was being broadcast live on television, and they did not want any embarrassments.
Having attended six of these annual charades, and knowing how they work, it still astonishes me that the leader of a country such as China, which aspires to a serious place at the top table of world affairs, does not dare to take unscripted questions from journalists. Li talked a lot about reform this morning; he could do worse than start with the way the government relates to the local and foreign press.