China dodges politically sensitive questions at key congress

Mon Nov 12, 2012 4:22pm EST
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By Ben Blanchard and Terril Yue Jones

BEIJING (Reuters) - In 2007, a year before Beijing hosted the Olympics, China's Communist rulers made a special effort at a five-yearly congress to show the world transparency and grant rare open access to foreign media.

This year's conclave is however overshadowed by China's biggest political scandal in three decades enveloping former high-flyer Bo Xilai and a tricky leadership transition, and that effort has gone into reverse, at least as far as political policy is concerned.

Zhang Gaoli, the party boss of the northern city of Tianjin and somebody tipped to be raised to the elite decision-making Standing Committee, sat through a so-called "open session" of his delegation last week, hardly uttering a word.

When he did eventually speak, answering a question about his promotion prospects, Zhang refused to be drawn.

"I am currently Tianjin Party secretary. My responsibilities are, along with all the other representatives, to earnestly study and discuss the spirit of the 18th Party Congress report, and studiously carry out Tianjin's work well, so that the people of Tianjin can truly attain the benefits, that the masses can feel they nurture us, so we must work for the people. Since I am still in Tianjin, I can only tell you this sentiment."

At the last congress, top officials took one-on-one interviews, overseas reporters were encouraged to ask questions on whatever subject they wished and government media handlers went out of their way to be helpful, hoping to burnish China's global image ahead of the 2008 Games.

This year, while economic officials and business leaders have generally been willing to talk, provincial leaders and rising political stars have largely shunned international media, and in some cases tried to avoid talking in public at all. Those who have spoken have been exceedingly cautious.

Wang Yang, the party chief of Guangdong province and seen by Western experts as a beacon for political change in China, stuck resolutely to the party line when asked about reform.   Continued...

China's Tianjin Municipality Communist Party Secretary Zhang Gaoli attends the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 14, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee