The Asian Voice

Hope for better access to information in China: The Star columnist

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on screen during a press conference after the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 16.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on screen during a press conference after the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 16. PHOTO: AFP

Every time he gestured, be it extending his arms or stressing a point with his palm, the photographers in the room went wild.

Under the resplendent, chandelier-studded roof of the Golden Hall at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had the attention of hundreds of local and foreign journalists for two hours.

Unlike Malaysia, where reporters get to meet office holders regularly in largely casual settings, Chinese politicians are less accessible to the media.

Which is why the Chinese Premier's press conference, held once a year to conclude the political meetings (known as lianghui) in March, is packed to the brim.

Camera shutters clicked in rapid succession when Mr Li waved, grinned or motioned with his hands.

Every word he said was faithfully recorded and analysed in media reports since, being the head of government and the top economic policymaker in China, he does carry a lot of weight.

This year's presser, which was broadcast live, saw Mr Li dismissing the fears of a Chinese hard landing, confirming the plans for a Shenzhen-Hong Kong stock connect programme this year and affirming China's determination to avoid massive layoffs while reducing overcapacity.

Describing the United States' elections as "lively and eye-catching", Mr Li said the underlying trend of Sino-US ties - which have been moving forward in the past decades - would not change.

He also said China and the United States can cooperate in the Asia-Pacific region and manage their differences well.

On the lighter side of things, Mr Li acknowledged the difficulty faced by journalists in getting Chinese ministers to comment on issues during the lianghui.

Instead of random doorstopping - which normally saw the ministers "sprinting away after (returning the questions with) clasped hands", in Mr Li's words - a special "Ministers' Passage" was created this year to group the media personnel together to pose questions to officers arriving for the meetings.

("Clasped hands" refers to the "gongxi" hand sign.)

"... (the ministers) have to open their mouths and answer the questions in a straight-forward manner," Mr Li said in response to a question on opacity of certain departments and local governments.

He said the government should upload as much information as possible on the Internet to trim down space for discretionary power.

"Isn't there a saying of 'people are doing and the heaven is watching'? In this era of cloud computing, we have to achieve 'power is being exerted and the clouds are supervising'," he said.

These kind of quotes and some of Mr Li's impromptu reactions make the press event interesting to watch, although it is widely known that journalists who get to ask him questions are usually selected in advance.

This year, at the very end of the presser, Mr Li granted an opportunity to a female reporter who had grabbed his attention with a placard bearing the Chinese characters nong min (farmer).

"As someone who has been a farmer before, I cannot bear to see this. We attach great importance to farmers," Mr Li said.

The reporter from Farmers' Daily raised a question on subsidies for grains and prices of agricultural products, and Mr Li promised that the government would continue to support the sector and farmers.

The team behind Mr Li's government's official WeChat account has to be given due credit for the interactive posts to stir public interest in the two-weeks-long meetings.

After Mr Li presented his government work report during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress, main highlights were condensed into "red packets", a popular feature of WeChat to send money electronically.

In this instance, Mr Li's red packets contained no cold hard cash, but the "beneficial policies" rolled out by the government to the people, such as "encouraging start-ups to increase employment", "innovation as driver of growth, releasing potential" and "empowering the farmers to boost income".

The gimmicks certainly scored points for attempting to bring the report - read out by Mr Li in a chamber behind the impressive façade of the Great Hall - closer to the people.

From Wednesday's press conference, the Q&A was edited into an interactive post that allowed WeChat users to tap on the media companies' logos to read the questions posed. Mr Li's replies came in both written text and audio file.

This year also saw media outlets like China's official news agency Xinhua trying out virtual reality technology to offer a 360-degree view of the meetings.

Those who were not physically present in the Golden Hall could also admire the grand chandeliers through the virtual reality footage and imagine the excitement that rippled through the air as Mr Li made his entry with brisk, confident steps.