By Ben Blanchard and Tony Munroe
BEIJING (Reuters) – For many journalists, China’s once in a year parliamentary meeting starts with a sharp-elbowed sprint up the stairs.
The 11-day event, which ended on Friday, kicked off with the annual scramble for positions ahead of Premier Li Keqiang’s opening speech. Reporters, photographers and camera crews formed queues overnight on one side of Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People before doors opened at around 7:30 a.m., unleashing a free-for-all for the best spots.
About 50 photographers and TV cameramen, many laden with heavy equipment, raced up the stairs at the Great Hall to battle for roughly 10 prime spots to view President Xi Jinping and the rest of his leadership team as they trooped in, and to watch the speeches.
For text correspondents, the sprint was to be among the first at a baize-covered table on the second floor where key documents, including the budget, are handed out at around 8 a.m.
Tom Daly, a Reuters correspondent whose task was to be among the first to get the reports and hand them to colleagues ready to phone in headlines, made sure he wasn’t carrying anything that might slow his way through the metal detectors, having handed his phone to a colleague further back in the queue.
“You have nothing in your pockets, you don’t have your belt,” said Daly, who like many of the hundreds of reporters in the first wave was wearing athletic shoes and was casually dressed, in contrast to the business-attired delegates arriving at the same time.
Reports in hand, the journalists sprawled out on the carpeting and phoned in key details to their editors. Using a laptop was inadvisable because there is no WiFi in the Great Hall of the People and wireless data coverage is spotty.
Reuters’ Beijing bureau, several blocks east of the Great Hall, published nearly 100 headlines, or “alerts”, phoned in by colleagues in the first 34 minutes after the reports were made available this year.
They included the year’s GDP target for the world’s second-biggest economy, as well as the defence budget, the budget deficit target and government bond issuance quotas.
The annual session of China’s National People’s Congress is labour-intensive to cover, generates few surprises and is thick with ponderous speeches and scripted answers, but with access to officials so scarce in China, it is the closest Beijing gets to a media feeding frenzy.
About 3,000 members of the news media were accredited – roughly one per delegate – including 48 from Reuters.
On Friday, Premier Li Keqiang gave his annual press conference at the end of parliament and it was unusually long at 155 minutes, compared with about 120 minutes in previous years. A collective murmur was audible among the journalists present when after two hours the host called for yet another question.
The biggest news from Li’s press conference was, arguably, the timing of planned corporate tax cuts.
Despite occasional pledges from officials to make parliament and its largely ceremonial advisory body that meets in parallel more open to foreign media and their questions, there is little spontaneity.
Chinese reporters from state media, always under the tight control of the ruling Communist Party, generally stick to safe and uncontroversial questions. During lulls during parliament, local journalists often try to interview foreign members of the media.
With so much stage management, moments of candour become newsworthy on their own.
At a news conference last week with the delegation from Tibet, regional Communist Party boss Wu Yingjie surprised many journalists in attendance when he fielded several questions from foreign news outlets, including Reuters, on sensitive topics such as exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Last year, a Chinese reporter was caught on live television theatrically rolling her eyes at a long-winded question asked at the parliament session by another Chinese journalist about China’s state asset management.
The clip went viral before being scrubbed by China’s internet censors.
(Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Kevin Yao, Thomas Suen; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)