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China Watchers: No Premier's Annual Press Conference, No Difference


FILE - A giant screen displays a live broadcast of Chinese Premier Li Qiang speaking at a news conference following the closing session of the National People's Congress, in Beijing, China, March 13, 2023.
FILE - A giant screen displays a live broadcast of Chinese Premier Li Qiang speaking at a news conference following the closing session of the National People's Congress, in Beijing, China, March 13, 2023.

China announced Monday that it would scrap Premier Li Qiang's press conference after the close of this year's annual parliamentary meeting, ending a tradition maintained for three decades.

National People's Congress (NPC) spokesperson Lou Qinjian said Li won’t hold the annual press conferences for the remaining term of China's parliament, which ends in 2027.

Starting in 1993, Chinese premiers have typically used the annual event as an opportunity to field wide-ranging questions from Chinese and foreign journalists. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, when China was opening its economy to the rest of the world, it had actively sought to elucidate its politics and policies in a bid to attract foreign investment and boost trade.

Ian Johnson, a senior fellow for Chinese studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who worked in China as a journalist from 1994 to 2001, said that foreign journalists at that time could use the press conferences to ask questions freely.

Later, "it went from being a potential source of information to becoming an empty exercise in propaganda,” he said. "By the end of the 2010s, it had become useless in terms of getting information. It's just scripted."

While some China-watchers don't expect the cancellation to change anything, others say the surprise decision to nix press conferences is a sign of the premier’s diminishing authority as President Xi Jinping increasingly isolates China from the outside world.

Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, told VOA that the conference "has always been just a staged performance, so canceling it won't mean anything different in terms of the substance."

"But it does signal that the Chinese government is not interested in even putting up a façade of government transparency and press freedom,” Wang said. “What it shows is the continuing tightened control of the CCP over the country and the continuing reversal of the 'reform and opening up' era. It also signals the continuing diminishing role of the premier vis a vis President Xi. The conference itself may mean nothing in substance, not holding it still is something."

Neil Thomas, a fellow for Chinese politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute, sees the decision as another step to consolidate Xi's position as the focal point of Chinese politics and to reduce the profile and potential popularity of other leaders.

"What we don't know is whether the press conference was canceled by Xi or by Li,” Thomas told VOA.

“If Xi shut down the press conference, that would suggest he felt Li was becoming too prominent and needed his influence curtailed,” he added. “[But] if Li volunteered to end the press conference, that would suggest shrewd upward management and a focus on influencing policy behind the scenes, which could bode slightly better for China's economic policy."

Chien-wen Kou, director of the Institute of International Relations at National Cheng-Chi University in Taipei, said the decision shows that the importance of the Chinese prime minister is diminished and the significance of the two sessions has been greatly reduced.

"There will be no future prime minister's press conference,” said Kou. “In fact, it also reflects that the rank of the prime minister has been reduced to, clearly, below the general secretary [Xi Jinping], and then the State Council is below the Central Committee of the Party.

“There is no such thing as the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China [and] the State Council being equal," he said.

Addressing a regular press conference on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said concerns about an increasingly insular China are unfounded.

"During the two sessions, the plenary sessions of the NPC are open to Chinese and foreign friends from the press,” said Mao. “Premier Li Qiang will deliver the report on the work of the government on behalf of the State Council at the opening of the second session of the 14th NPC. In addition to the press conference of the NPC today, the second session of the 14th NPC will hold various events, including press conferences, the deputies' and ministers' press briefings, and delegation meetings open to the press, to fully release information."

Mao emphasized that the press center for the two sessions will provide news services to Chinese and foreign journalists "in an open and transparent way."