Much ado about the Communist Congress

The absurdly opaque Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) got over on Wednesday. There’s one photo opportunity left on Thursday when the new set of top leaders walk the red carpet at the Great Hall of the People. But to get back to the topic – the absurdly opaque Congress is finally over.

Obscure because at the end of seven days of deliberations, it still wasn’t clear about how, and why, the leaders who have been chosen were chosen. Expectedly very few foreign reporters got an opportunity to ask probing questions at the few press conferences.

President Hu Jintao’s inaugural speech was televised. But after that even for reporters who had the coveted Congress registration pass proudly hanging like priceless necklace, there was zero access to anywhere but the media centre.

The media centre was well stocked – wifi, many, many computers, always-ready to help officials, rightly chilled orange juice, cakes and cashews. Yes, there was a nice bag with pamphlets and a cap as well for registered journalists. (Could the colour of the cap be changed at the next Congress? It was too dull for my Indian taste.)

What it didn’t have was a single official, delegate willing to speak; other than of course at superbly choreographed press conferences.

I applied for interviews with delegates. One was a migrant worker, one a lawyer and one a rare woman delegate. There was silence from the organisers.

There were a few take-aways from the experience of covering the Congress. There were a couple of never-to-take away things as well. For one, I am unlikely to use these phrases (at least till the next Congress in 2022 anyway): “once-in-a-decade” (as I write, an anchor at the CCTV lovingly used it), “once-in-generation” or for that matter “once-in-10-years”: all these phrases have been used at least 1.3 billion times by the media worldwide during the run-up to the once-in…err…Congress and also during it.

Of course, I learnt one major trick to get to ask questions in press conferences addressed by Chinese government officials. Thanks to a journalist from China Daily who after asking a question at a presser became so famous nationally that she was kind enough to share her secrets behind getting an opportunity to ask a question. Wear red, she wrote as red is the colour of China and the CPC. Make eye contact and smile, she said. I took her word; at least the eye contact and smile part of it. Result: I never felt so lonely and ignored in a room full of people at the next press conference.

The China Daily reporter’s question was blunt and incisive at the same time: whether investigations into the Bo Xilai case showed a “stronger determination by the Party to fight corruption?” Of course not, it revealed the determination of the Party to show an ambitious, populist politician the door to political oblivion. (That’s of course just me speculating.) The reporter got her “firm and clear answer” that the Party will continue to fight corruption undaunted.

The official media wrote and broadcast much about the foreign reporters who had come to cover the Congress. Selected few were interviewed. The answer from an Ukranian journalist in a CCTV interview said it all: “more relaxed,” he said when asked about the Congress. Covering the key Congress of the largest political party in the world that is ruling China, the second largest economy, was relaxing? Alas, nobody asked me. Yes, relaxing more than anything else, I would have said.

What we also got was slowing down of the internet and blocking of gmail and google. Moreover I had to travel in stuffy taxis as the rear windows of many taxis were locked up lest passengers chucked dissident leaflets at unsuspecting passersby.

Anyway, I am headed to the Great Hall on Thursday for the new leaders’ meet the press. A friend has promised me his blood red sweater.

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