Foreign journalists have often had a tumultuous relationship with China’s Two Sessions government meetings. Arguably the biggest event on China’s annual political calendar, questions are vetted and approved before they can be asked.
Despite the pomp and stagecraft, or perhaps because of these aspects, it’s a great place to observe how press outlets in China react to government and interact with each other, especially as increasing numbers of foreigners are working within the structures of Chinese state media outlets.
British journalist Helen Bentley and Egyptian journalist Mohamed Osama were the first foreigners to cover the Two Sessions for China’s biggest press agency, Xinhua. Their role as Xinhua reporters generated significant social media coverage. “The attention was a bit overwhelming,” Bentley said. “I don’t think I really realized what I’d signed up for until everyone started congratulating me. The response from my co-workers was really touching.”
She told TWOC that in her view, foreign journalists tended to all rush toward the same few stories.
“There’s always so much focus by the foreign media on the big issues, like the military budget or the GDP, they’re always the big announcements, the highlights,” she said. “But if you look a bit closer, there are some interesting social policies going on at the moment.”
“I spoke with a couple of women who are doing a lot in their role as NPC deputies to improve the lives of left-behind children in rural areas. This doesn’t really adhere to the narrative that international media has for China – but this is the real China. This is helping people at a local level.”
She also pointed toward efforts to enliven discussion, such as the increased use of live-streaming on the internet, which has boomed in recent years, as a reporting tool.
Foreign journalists have asked questions on behalf of Chinese state media agencies on previous occasions, sometimes generating controversy. This was the case when Australian journalist Andrea Yu asked a question at a Two Sessions meeting on behalf of Australian company CAMG which was closely connected to Chinese state media. Critics said she was in effect disguising the presence of Chinese state media, while defenders pointed out that the vitriol directed toward her was way out of proportion to the questions asked. It was an illustration of the various influences at play: foreign media can be both penetrating and insightful, as well as cliquish or ill-informed. Both then rub against attempts by the authorities to control the narrative.
Foreign journalists working for foreign media outlets also play a nuanced role in the proceedings as well. Former Huffington Post journalist Matt Sheehan recently mentioned his experiences dealing with an aggressive village committee that was restricting his attempts to cover a protest, while at the same time receiving phone calls confirming the question he planned to ask at the Two Sessions.