China’s “Two Sessions” in Progress, but Premier Will Not Meet the Press

This year’s Two Sessions—the annual meetings of the legislative National People’s Congress (NPC) and the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—are taking place amid grim economic conditions. The Economist cited shrinking factory production, persistent deflation, falling property prices, and a lagging stock market, among other issues that Chinese officials must confront. In an attempt to reassure investors and the public, Premier Li Qiang announced on Tuesday that China will target an economic growth rate of about 5 percent this year, which some analysts described as “ambitious.” But in a sign of receding transparency, as reported by the AP’s Ken Moritsugu and Elaine Kurtenbach, the government also announced that it will henceforth eliminate the premier’s traditional post-NPC press conference:

Lou Qinjian, the spokesperson for the National People’s Congress, said on the eve of the opening of the legislature’s annual session that Premier Li Qiang would not hold a news conference at its conclusion, as it has every year since 1993.

[…] Lou said that journalists would be given more opportunities to ask questions of government ministers and other officials, as well as of the nearly 3,000 delegates to the congress. The last time there was no premier’s press conference after the congress was in 1992, state broadcaster CCTV said.

“If there are no special circumstances, the premier’s press conference will not be held in the following years of this National People’s Congress,” he said, referring to its current five-year term that ends in 2027. [Source]

On previous occasions, this press conference has often been composed of highly scripted questions chosen in advance, but it has offered a rare occasion for both local and international media to speak directly with high-ranking officials about Chinese policy and to make the premier a more familiar face to the world. The move to scrap the press conference was seen in part as another measure aimed at centralizing power around Xi Jinping. “By design, they only want one voice — from the (Communist) Party. They don’t want other voices to dilute the voice of the party, which is controlled by Xi,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. (Although Li Qiang is a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and of its elite Politburo Standing Committee, the role of premier is technically a state position.) Chun Han Wong at The Wall Street Journal described how the decision to eliminate the press conference signals another reversal not just in government transparency, but also in economic openness and optimism:

The decision underscores how Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made a black-box political system even more opaque, further impeding the ability of foreign governments and businesses to parse the Communist Party’s management of the world’s second-largest economy. It also reinforces Xi’s pre-eminence by paring the visibility of a top deputy.

Some politics watchers say the dismantling of a closely watched institution in Chinese politics, where ordinary citizens and foreign observers could hear a top official answer questions on major issues, marks another reversal in Beijing’s decadeslong program of “reform and opening up”—which included a commitment to broaden connections with the rest of the world.

“Whatever the reason, a move like this tends to underline all the claims made about Beijing today about its autocratic, centralizing and enclosed leadership—messages which I would have thought it would be in the interests of the party to try to dispel,” said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. “It also raises the specter of their nervousness about the current economic challenges, and an attempt to deal with this by opacity rather than openness.” [Source]

On Monday afternoon, a NetEase News special feature titled “Past and Present Incarnations of the Premier’s Press Conference” was deleted, according to a test by China Digital Times editors. Other forms of online censorship have also been observed. Many official Weibo accounts that forwarded the news about the canceled press conference have enabled comment filtering, rendering a large number of netizen comments invisible. Among those accounts were Beijing News, Jiefang Daily, Jiemian Global, and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing news outlet Wen Wei Po. According to Teacher Li (@whyyoutouzhele) on X (formerly Twitter), discussions of related topics have been banned on Weibo, and only content from verified users is displayed. A search for the hashtag “There will be no premier’s news conference after the closing ceremony of this year’s legislative session” returned an error message on Weibo. CDT Chinese editors have collected some online comments related to the demise of the long-running press conference

HuanseY:Formalizing the direction of the Xi Dynasty.

zymz22334455:Do you now understand the full implications of “looking to one man as the highest authority?”

GammaQuinn:The premiership has been utterly marginalized.

Lkjmnb181029Jun:They’ve finally been restored to the original factory settings.

passi0nateGirl:The NPC raised their hands, the CPPCC applauded, the premier took no questions, and the people were allowed no discussion.

laomanpindao:The economic situation is so dire that the premier doesn’t dare take a stance. Any stance would be incorrect, and would cause him to be blamed, so he will simply keep his mouth shut.

FengquanF:Looking at the milquetoast “proposals” made by representatives in recent years, there is actually no need to hold the Two Sessions. It’s a complete waste of time. [Chinese]

The Chinese government has increasingly restricted foreign access to information about China’s economy and other sectors, as analyzed in a recent MERICS report. The government’s assertiveness in controlling information flows often coincides with national security campaigns, which have intensified under Xi Jinping. When Xi became the CCP General Secretary in 2012, over 80,000 government economic indicators were published; by 2016, more than half of those had been discontinued. Here is a non-exhaustive timeline of the censorship or restriction of economics-related content in China over the past year, as covered by CDT:

  • March 2023: internet censors deleted a viral “Kong Yiji Literature” anthem from Bilibili and gave the account that posted the musical parody video a 15-day suspension. Kong Yiji Literature mocks the Chinese government’s “bootstrap mentality” mantra, whereby mere effort is supposedly a recipe for financial success, despite rising youth unemployment and other economic issues.
  • April 2023: the national Cyberspace Administration of China released censorship instructions, later posted online, outlining the objectives and methods for implementing a nationwide special campaign for cultivating a business-friendly online environment.
  • May 2023: media outlets reported that China’s top financial data provider, WIND, began restricting foreign access to its data in 2022, and company information databases Qichacha and Tianyancha also shut down access for foreign users.
  • June 2023: a series of infographics from Sohu News highlighting poverty, youth unemployment, and other social issues, using statistics mostly drawn from government sources, were scrubbed from Weibo.
  • August 2023: the Chinese government suspended the publication of youth unemployment data after it hit a record high of 21.3 percent in June.
  • December 2023: China’s Ministry of State Security made several pronouncements warning the public against expressions of pessimism about the Chinese economy, which it described as a “battlefield” of superpower rivalry.
  • December 2023: several widely shared and somewhat critical Chinese-language articles about economics and finance were deleted by censors, and one prominent economist had some of his social media accounts banned.
  • January 2024: a popular documentary video about the economic struggles of migrant workers was taken offline and a hashtag of its title was blocked on Weibo.
  • January 2024: a 2016 People’s Daily article predicting that China would enter the club of “high-income” nations by 2024 was deleted from its website after a Weibo user “maliciously” reposted it in a sarcastic manner, drawing a slew of scornful comments from other Weibo users.
  • February 2024: in a sign of how little space there is to freely discuss economic data, Chinese investors flocked to the comments section of a Weibo post about giraffes published by the U.S. embassy in China in order to voice their anxiety about the plummeting Chinese stock market.
  • February 2024: the country’s economic situation was so noticeably poor that a People’s Daily article trumpeting a supposed nationwide “air of optimism” drew so many derisive comments that its related hashtag was censored on Weibo.
  • February 2024: the government’s suppression of negative descriptions of the economy has led to a growing number of euphemisms about economic distress that conceal their negativity, such as “flexible employment,” “workforce optimization,” and “delayed employment.”
  • February 2024: a post about a Guangzhou public opinion poll on the state of the private economy, the outlook for employment, and current incomes, which showed the largest drop in public satisfaction in 30 years, was deleted from WeChat.
  • February 2024: a post by Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping about the challenges facing the Chinese economy was deleted from WeChat.

Cindy Carter contributed to this post.


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