The ruling Chinese Communist Party's censorship machine has suppressed online discussion and reporting of a viral video showing a Chinese journalist covering the country's annual parliament roll her eyes in exasperation at a long-winded, soft-ball question asked by a colleague standing next to her.
In the footage, reporter Liang Xiangyi of the Shanghai-based financial news service Yicai Media is seen looking at fellow journalist Zhang Huijun of a U.S.-based TV station with ties to Beijing, then rolling her eyes, as Zhang asks a 45-second question remarkable only for its lack of challenge to the official it is aimed at.
"How will there be effective supervision for the assets of state-owned companies overseas, so as to prevent capital flight?" Zhang asks, in a rambling question packed full of official media propaganda buzzwords lauding President Xi Jinping's pet Silk Road international infrastructure plan, also known as One Belt, One Road.
At one point, she refers to China as "our country."
Liang turns to look at Zhang, who works for a China-backed station called American Multimedia TV, possibly wondering which organization she represents, before rolling her eyes in dramatic style at Zhang's sycophantic tone, and turning away again.
The video provided a rare moment of color in the heavily scripted environment of NPC press conferences, where tame questions are selected in advance from organizations friendly to Beijing, and was immediately picked up as a meme, spawning several satirical re-enactments, cartoons, and pop-art designs for T-shirts and cell phone cases.
But Liang's expression also drew criticism from some in China's tightly controlled state media, amid reports from fellow journalists that her NPC press accreditation was revoked, and that she could face further punishment.
Recalled for investigation
Journalists said Liang had been recalled by Yicai Media for investigation and self-criticism, and was devastated by the backlash caused by her eye roll, according to unconfirmed posts to social media chat groups.
Liang's name quickly became a banned keyword on Chinese social media sites, while the ruling party's propaganda department issued a directive to editors and journalists banning further coverage of the eye roll.
"Urgent notice: All media personnel are forbidden to discuss the NPC blue-suited reporter incident on social media platforms. Any posts already made must be deleted," a leaked directive published online by the U.S.-based China Digital Times website said.
"All websites are to avoid hyping this incident," it said.
A journalist who gave only his surname Zhang said retribution against Liang may not happen immediately, but is likely inevitable.
"This has really exploded now," Zhang said. "There is already an emoticon of her facial expression; it's all over the place."
"As for how they deal with it, there may be a certain amount of delayed reaction, but it won't be delayed by much," he said. "There will be an internal process first of all [at Yicai Media], and the NPC press center will be sanctioning her. They said her NPC accreditation has been revoked."
"The propaganda department will definitely be dealing with the reporter concerned, so this isn't over yet," he said.
A second journalist surnamed Chen said Liang had definitely been kicked out of the NPC after the incident.
"I think we can be pretty sure we won't be seeing any more of Liang Xiangyi at the NPC," Chen said. "This incident has caused so much merriment that you can't even run searches on social media for her name now."
"From the point of view of the party, they don't want anyone talking about this ever again," he said.
Chen said that AMTV is one of a number of "overseas" media organizations that are registered outside China, but which put out the official line of the propaganda ministry, and Beijing wants to avoid scrutiny of such groups at all costs.
"I have written about investment in overseas media, and the identity of these so-called overseas media organizations," he said. "This is really sensitive stuff, I tell you. The party owns these media organizations, but there is far more than that going on below the surface."
"I can only really hint at it for now. There are huge risks involved," he said.
In 2015, Reuters reported that the Chinese government secretly controls a network of 33 overseas radio stations in 14 countries via its international broadcaster, which is structured so as to hide its true ownership, and which broadcast Beijing's take on global events to listeners in their own countries.
The network is run by three expatriate Chinese businessmen who are China Radio International (CRI)'s partners and executives, Reuters said, adding that it reaches from Finland to Nepal to Australia, and from Philadelphia to San Francisco.
One of the stations identified in the report broadcasts across the U.S. capital, and Reuters quoted officials as saying they knew nothing of the paper trail leading back to CRI in Beijing.
And according to exiled billionaire Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok, the Chinese Communist Party is flooding the United States with its spies, sending dozens of new operatives from the state security police to work in the country at state-owned organizations.
State media reporting
An employee who answered the phone at AMTV said Zhang Huijun would be continuing to work as normal following the incident.
He denied that the organization has any links to the Chinese government, and tried to distance the organization from Zhang, saying she was a "temporary" hire who didn't represent it.
The group's own website says it operates under a "cooperation deal" with state broadcast CCTV, and broadcasts Chinese state television programs in the U.S.
The employee cut short the interview when questioned in more detail about its ties to CCTV, however.
An employee who answered the phone at Yicai Media declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Tuesday, saying they didn't have details of the incident.
The ousted former editor of Baixing magazine, Huang Liangtian, said the huge online reaction to the incident illustrated the sheer dullness of state media reporting.
"These reporters who are 'covering' the NPC have such a boring time of it these days," Huang said. "I used to cover the NPC as a journalist 30 years ago, and it wasn't like it is now."
"Nowadays, it is getting more and more tedious, with both the interviewers and the interviewees just going through the motions," he said.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.